Subject: Pensioners, Rudd’s overseas trip & Nelson’s poor popularity
STEVE PRICE: The message out of yesterday’s pensioners forum, I think, for our politicians was pretty clear: Start listening, stop spending all our money on the young, recognise that older Australians are doing it tough.
It was a very instructive three hours at Parramatta yesterday. I saw tears in some people’s eyes; I saw proud older women there who were telling me stories afterwards that they’re forced to go back and live with their children, because they’ve got no money. You’ve got pensioners eating baked beans to survive in the last two days before pension day; a woman who sold off her garage to have enough food to buy – enough money to buy food in the last couple of years.
It really was, you know – people making judgement calls on their medical treatment because they can’t afford it. It was at the same time, I think, sad and uplifting. These people actually want to force the Government to make some changes.
So what does our own political panel make of the plight of pensioners? Joining us on the line is the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure, Regional Development and Local Government, Anthony Albanese. Thanks for your time again.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good morning, Steve.
STEVE PRICE: And in the studio, shadow health spokesman, Joe Hockey. Thanks for coming in, Joe.
JOE HOCKEY: My pleasure.
STEVE PRICE: Minister, has the pension fallen too far behind?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, we certainly know that pensioners are under financial pressure from the rising cost of living. They have no other source of income. Many pensioners of course – I grew up in a two-person household, myself and my mum, who was a pensioner, and I certainly understood the pressure that could be on from time to time.
So I think that certainly forums such as the one that you held yesterday do send a strong message. It is important …
STEVE PRICE: Are your colleagues listening?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, it is important to recognise that over the past couple of weeks, the Government’s delivered on one of our major election commitments, spending $4 billion to increase the utilities allowance from $107.20 a year up to $500.00 a year. That’ll be paid in four quarterly instalments, so seniors …
STEVE PRICE: They love that. They’re happy to have it, but they still say to me, well, why the hell are we still paying GST on our utilities? Why can’t we drop the GST for pensioners on things like electricity and gas and water?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, you know, the GST – the tax system – we know what happens when you fiddle with the tax system. It can end up costing you more in terms of the fiddle of the Tax Act, than the benefit.
STEVE PRICE: But in things like electricity, I mean, you have a pensioner couple, one of the couple dies; their pension then drops to the level without the double income, and yet they’re still paying probably the same amount of money in electricity. I mean, these are the small things that upset and anger them.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Sure.
STEVE PRICE: And they don’t feel they’re being included in your debate.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well …
STEVE PRICE: I mean, they see the $5000 baby bonus; they see all of the debate, and then they even go back to Peter Costello’s superannuation changes, making that tax-free money for people over 60. But we have a big group of Australians in this – in the middle, pre-super, before the super bubble comes through, that are really doing it tough.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Sure, no, that is – that is certainly the case, and certainly those people, though, I think to go from $107.20 a year up to $500 is a substantial increase in terms of paying those bills, the electricity bill, the gas bill. And by paying it quarterly as well, it’s designed to come in at the same time that the bills are coming in.
And that, I think, is a recognition, and I’m pretty sure it has – and Joe can confirm it – I’m pretty sure it has bipartisan support. [Indistinct].
STEVE PRICE: Well, it was a matched election promise off what they were trying to do, wasn’t it? Joe, did your mob drop the ball on pensioners?
JOE HOCKEY: No, Steve. In fact, we …
STEVE PRICE: No? You were there 12 years, and all the people I’ve seen there yesterday say that you did.
JOE HOCKEY: Well, then they tend to forget that we actually increased the pension substantially above inflation – above inflation. We gave a guarantee that the pension would be levelled off against average weekly male earnings, which is higher than the CPI. Previously it’d only been the CPI.
We introduced the pensioner bonus …
STEVE PRICE: But it hasn’t worked.
JOE HOCKEY: … which Kevin Rudd – we introduced the pensioner bonus, which Kevin Rudd was forced into agreeing to, only a few weeks ago.
STEVE PRICE: But these people yesterday are angry because of what you didn’t do, not what Labor is not doing. Labor’s only been there since November.
JOE HOCKEY: No, no, well – well, but hang on, hang on, I’m telling you what we did do.
STEVE PRICE: But it’s not enough.
JOE HOCKEY: Well, okay, well, one of the reasons it is not enough is because grocery prices, petrol prices, electricity and water prices are going up, and these people, these poor people are on fixed incomes.
STEVE PRICE: Correct.
JOE HOCKEY: There are nearly two million Australians on a pension. There are 700,000 Australians on a disability pension, far too many in my view. Far too many.
STEVE PRICE: But it’s Labor – but it’s Labor who’s having the inquiries into petrol and grocery prices. You weren’t doing anything.
JOE HOCKEY: Well, but – no, that – and that’s not correct either. The fundamental point is Kevin Rudd promised that he would do something about petrol prices, about grocery prices, and yet, for example, we hear only a couple of weeks ago, here in New South Wales they’ve increased electricity prices – sorry, water – by, what, 27 per cent, wasn’t it, over three years?
Or here in New South Wales, they’ve introduced all these tolls on all these roads, which don’t discriminate against – or in favour of pensioners. Everyone’s affected by these tolls. Or, here in New South Wales, they’ve announced an increase of 6 per cent, nearly twice the level of CPI, of inflation, on public transport.
And these are the things that pensioners have to use. They have to use …
STEVE PRICE: Pensioners do get public transport discounts.
JOE HOCKEY: They do, but some people – but people are affected in various ways.
STEVE PRICE: So, Minister, Joe Hockey’s saying it’s your Labor state colleagues who are to blame.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Joe Hockey, sounds to me like he is giving consideration to that Macquarie Street runner around the track there. The truth is, as you point out, pensioners do have concessions for public transport, in terms of …
STEVE PRICE: But they’re affected by higher fuel, aren’t they? You’d agree with that?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Of course they are, of course they are. And I agree that you did …
STEVE PRICE: But my message for both of you is that people from yesterday are not happy, and you’re not getting the message out to them that you care about it.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, that’s why we’ve actually taken action in terms of establishing a petrol commissioner, and putting in place that monitoring of prices, giving the Australian Competition and Consumer Commissioner, the consumer watchdog, more power to take action against the sort of activity that we’ve seen, whereby petrol prices are bumped up when it’s headed towards the weekend.
That’s why we’ve got our inquiry into grocery prices. I think the people can’t have expected us to have turned around a whole range of issues in a few months. What they can expect and what we’ve done, is first to acknowledge that the issues are there, and …
STEVE PRICE: Well, to his credit Bill Shorten turned up out there yesterday. Jenny Macklin was too busy, but Bill Shorten turned up. At least he showed some compassion.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, Jenny Macklin I spoke to her yesterday, and I know she was on her way to the Kimberleys, so as, looking at remote indigenous communities, so …
STEVE PRICE: Which is the point I made to her that perhaps she’s got too many portfolios.
JOE HOCKEY: It’s one thing to turn up, Steve, it’s one thing to turn up, it’s another thing to do something. And you’ve actually got to have runs on the board. We believe – we believe we have runs on the board, right, such as increasing the pension rate, introducing the Medicare safety net, PBS safety net, expanding that, a whole range of different things.
But if it’s hard for those people in Parramatta, right, spare a thought for those people in mining areas who are on fixed incomes, where the local mechanic is charging twice as much, because he can get a job in the mines for twice as much money. And they’re the people that are really doing it really tough, where rents are going through the roof.
STEVE PRICE: Don’t worry, all my rural callers were calling yesterday.
JOE HOCKEY: Yeah.
STEVE PRICE: There’s a caller, John, on the line, he’s got a question for Joe. G’day, John.
CALLER JOHN: Yes, I most certainly have.
STEVE PRICE: Go ahead.
CALLER JOHN: I want to take his chance. Because I feel very angry at the moment, so I’m trying to calm down. I have in front of me a piece of paper from Centrelink, which I received, dated 6 July 2000, eight years ago.
STEVE PRICE: Mmm.
CALLER JOHN: This was when this one-off payment was first – first came about. Now, John Howard made two public appearances on national television to the effect that all our old aged pensioners, male and female, would receive a one-off payment of $1,000. A lot of people won’t remember this.
STEVE PRICE: Yeah. What’s the question, John?
CALLER JOHN: The question is simply this: I received – no, it’s not a question, it’s something I want to say to anybody listening.
STEVE PRICE: I know, but you need to make it quick. We’ve got a lot of people here.
CALLER JOHN: Well, okay, I’ve got a piece of paper which was kept all these years, and instead of $1000, like many others, I received an amount of $1, okay – this is a fact, $1 …
STEVE PRICE: Yes? Why?
CALLER JOHN: … was put in – put in my bank account.
STEVE PRICE: Why?
CALLER JOHN: Why? This was – this was my share of the one-off payment.
STEVE PRICE: I don’t understand that, Joe. I mean, can you explain that to us off-air? Do you, Joe, understand that?
JOE HOCKEY: No, I’m not familiar … It doesn’t sound right.
STEVE PRICE: John, I don’t understand what that means.
JOE HOCKEY: It doesn’t sound right.
STEVE PRICE: Why would you get a dollar, not a thousand? Albo, have you got any idea what that’s about?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I do remember at the time it was related through to, I think …
JOE HOCKEY: Unless he’s on a part pension, and he had significant income.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Yeah, it was related to people who were not on the full pension.
JOE HOCKEY: Yeah. Yeah, he might’ve been on a part pension with significant additional income.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Didn’t get the full amount, and at the time, that wasn’t explained when the announcement was made …
STEVE PRICE: That’s seven years ago.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: … during that particular election campaign.
STEVE PRICE: We’ll try and sort that out, we’ll try and sort that out off-air. Can you both stay with us? We’re going to take a short break. I want to come back and talk about Brendon Nelson’s popularity figures in the latest poll, down to nine per cent, and I’d like to ask Mr Albanese about Kevin Rudd’s trip to China.
STEVE PRICE: Anthony Albanese and Joe Hockey with us. Minister, Kevin Rudd’s about to land in China. It’s obviously going to be a very tricky diplomatic visit for him given what’s happening with the Olympic torch, given all the debate about China and Tibet. How’s he going to handle it?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well I think with diplomatic skill. Australia has a firm position of supporting one China, we support that position I think on a bipartisan basis, but at the same time, we don’t ignore human rights issues.
And I’m sure that these issues, it would be pretty hard to imagine them not – not being raised. The Prime Minister has said that the Chinese government should engage the Dalai Lama or his representatives in informal set of discussions about – about the situation.
STEVE PRICE: Well that has upset them. I understand the Chinese Embassy in Canberra has made an official complaint about that comment.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Sure. These issues are complex. But it’s important that Australia’s position of recognising China’s sovereignty over Tibet is there. But at the same time we also want to see human rights respected and for dialogue to occur.
STEVE PRICE: Joe, should we stop the Olympic torch. Should it be cancelled?
JOE HOCKEY: No, no. The Olympic torch is more about – more about what the Olympics is about. It’s about peace, it’s about global engaging. It’s about the achievement of women and men in the sporting arena and bringing people together. And it’s not so much about where the Olympics are being held.
I know Kevin Rudd is very, very close to the Chinese government and I think he’s well placed to put some pressure on them about Tibet.
STEVE PRICE: Do you think the Prime Minister should go to the opening ceremony in Beijing?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well if his diary allows he certainly has indicated he doesn’t support a boycott and he has the same position as myself and Joe do, that the torch ceremony and the activities around the Olympics are actually a way of – if people want to see China engaging more with the world, then what better way than for the Olympics to be held there?
I really don’t support the view that somehow you use the Olympics as a battering ram against the Chinese government. I don’t think that will be effective. I think that will …
JOE HOCKEY: Counter productive.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Some of these demonstrations, like it’s a bit – I have a great deal of respect for the Buddhist religion and for the Dalai Lama. Some of the followers though, that appear to be using this issue to engage in violent demonstrations, trying to douse the flame and these sorts of activities, I think do their cause no good whatsoever.
STEVE PRICE: Joe your leader’s popularity in the latest poll is down to nine per cent, Brendan Nelson, can he survive figures as appalling as that?
JOE HOCKEY: Yes and I might say that …
STEVE PRICE: Nine per cent.
JOE HOCKEY: Well mate let me tell you, he is stoic, he’s determined, he’s out there engaging with the Australian community and he’s working really, really hard. And quite frankly, you know the irony is that we have these polls every two weeks now, at the same time in 1996 when there was a change of government, the polls were every three months – every three months with Kim Beazley.
STEVE PRICE: Well I don’t even remember Kim Beazley being at nine per cent?
JOE HOCKEY: Oh yeah, he was very low. But look whether – mate …
STEVE PRICE: Mr Albanese, can you just remind me, did Joe – did Kim Beazley ever get down to nine per cent?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Nothing like that …
JOE HOCKEY: Yeah well I remember Simon Crean wasn’t too popular sunshine so – nor was Mark Latham in the end. So let’s just not rewrite history at this stage. You know what Steve, at the end of the day, it’s a tough job but he’s doing a very, very good and determined job.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look, we had a debate before about pensioners and the pressures that are on them. The other group of people who pressure’s on of course are people with mortgages. And you had Brendan Nelson out there last week giving a speech saying that the pain is just as great for those people …
JOE HOCKEY: That is not right.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: … evicting people.
JOE HOCKEY: I was actually at that speech.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: … as it was for those people who are evicted. I saw it. I saw it on TV it was a shocker.
JOE HOCKEY: I was actually – I was actually at that speech.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: It was a shocker.
JOE HOCKEY: Let me tell you, let me tell you. We actually are the ones pointing out that people are going through pain at the moment? Unfortunately you guys made these huge promises that you’d do something about petrol, you’d do something about mortgages, you’d do something about groceries and every day Australians are seeing no difference. And you over promised and under delivered in all these things.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, no we didn’t.
JOE HOCKEY: Absolutely, what have you done? Have petrol prices come down?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: We were very clear.
JOE HOCKEY: How have grocery prices come down?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Find somewhere where we said that we would reduce them?
JOE HOCKEY: Oh what?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: We would stop the pressure being put on, we would make waves – we said that we’ve have a petrol commissioner, we’ve done that.
JOE HOCKEY: No, no, no, no what are you saying? Are you saying you said you’d do nothing about it?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No of course we didn’t say that.
JOE HOCKEY: What did you say to the Australian people?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: We said we’d do exactly what we are doing Joe. And what Brendan Nelson said last week, where he said – where he said ….
JOE HOCKEY: Hang on, don’t get out of this.
STEVE PRICE: Hang on Joe.
JOE HOCKEY: This is a very important point, Steve.
STEVE PRICE: Well let him speak. He’s changing Labor Party policy here.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No I’m not Joe and you know I’m not.
JOE HOCKEY: I do know.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: You tried verballing me in parliament after one of these interviews. Brendan Nelson used half a quote, so don’t try that again.
JOE HOCKEY: No mate, no mate I’m listening very carefully.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: And Brendan Nelson went along and told a bunch of bankers that it was just as difficult for them to evict people as it was for the people that were being evicted.
STEVE PRICE: Joe whether he said that or not, that’s the impression that came out of those comments.
JOE HOCKEY: Well then the impression is wrong. But also Steve, let me tell you that it is incredibly hard for people who are being evicted, but there is no joy for anyone involved in the whole process. And the best way to do this is to make sure that you have a strong economy, focus on the fundamentals, get away from the spin of the Rudd government. Focus on making sure that people aren’t in a position where they have to be evicted.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: You left a 16-year high underlying inflation rate.
JOE HOCKEY: That’s complete garbage. That is complete garbage.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: What they weren’t …
JOE HOCKEY: Let me tell you, the unemployment rate was three per cent when we left.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: They weren’t any interest rate increases?
JOE HOCKEY: Three percent when we left government – three per cent. When we came into government it was three and a half per cent in 1996.
STEVE PRICE: I appreciate the spirited debate by both of you. Mr Albanese thank you for your time, I will talk to you in a fortnight.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good to talk to you, Steve.
STEVE PRICE: Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development. Joe Hockey the opposition spokesman on health. Thank you very much for coming in.
JOE HOCKEY: Anytime, Steve.
STEVE PRICE: Talk to you in two weeks time.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.