We’re back in the black, but …

By Ian Henschke, Chief Advocate

The Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced this week’s Federal Budget by saying Australia was back on track and back in the black.

But it’s a bleak outlook for the more than one in four pensioners living in poverty or if you’re one of the 128,000 older Australians waiting for a home care package.

National Seniors made an extensive budget submission earlier this year and we hoped the government would listen.

But it looks as if most of our calls for change (and those of other advocacy groups) have not been heard. All we’ve got is small change in the form of a $75 one-off payment for single pensioners and $125 for couples to help meet the cost of their power bills, along with mainly previously announced initiatives that won’t solve the key issues confronting seniors.

In the many media interviews I’ve done since budget night I’ve pointed out this was a missed opportunity for the government to address some serious problems for older Australians.

We had called for an Independent Age Pension Tribunal to take the politics out of the pension. Instead, the one-off payment is another example of a government playing politics with pensioners.

We requested the indexation of the Energy Supplement to ensure it kept pace with CPI. This would have been better than a one-off payment. It would have been ongoing help to keep the lights, heating and cooling on for older Australians who rely on the pension.

We also requested the asset taper rate be cut from $3 to $2 – this is the amount you lose from your pension for every $1000 of assets you have over the age pension threshold. This was ignored. It was this government’s decision to lift the rate from $1.50 to $3 in January 2017 that resulted in 300,000 pensioners losing all or part of their pension.

Around one in nine pensioners receives Rent Assistance because they don’t own their own home. These are the people who are really struggling. There was no help for them even though we asked for an increase in the Rent Assistance.

And yes, the government did announce increased funding for residential and home aged care as the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety began in February and in December’s mid-year economic statement.

But the 10,000 new home care packages announced on budget night only go a small way to relieving the anguish of the 128,000 Australians on the waiting list.

This budget was an opportunity to fix pension poverty and a broken aged care system. Instead we got a cascade of tax cuts kicking in over the next five years costing almost $20 billion dollars. We don’t begrudge the improvement in income for those millions of Australians who are on a working wage but we’re deeply, deeply disappointed those who need help have been forgotten.

We also called for a scheme similar to the child dental scheme which gives $1,000 of basic care over two years. We wanted it extended to help pensioners. That went unheeded. I raised this in a radio interview and was so pleased to get an email from a listener saying she’d heard me and like so many other seniors she “held back from visiting the dentist for a check-up because it was too expensive”.

She put it so simply: “Medicare is there for the rest of the body but when it comes to our teeth we have no Medicare.”

She thanked me for “standing up for seniors” and wanted me to continue the fight for better dental treatment. We will.

But the budget did have some positives.

There were some changes to superannuation. From July 2020, 65 and 66-year-olds will be able to make additional contributions up to $300,000 without meeting the work test. Also, spouse contributions will be allowed up to the age of 75.

There’s $18 million for a national plan to tackle elder abuse, including a new hotline 1800 353 374 and $1.1 billion for GPs to maintain their treatment of older Australians in aged care.

Another $320 million was allocated to create 13,500 new residential aged care places.

So where to next?

Our election priorities will be announced when the election is called - expected within days. Let’s hope the government will address some of these omissions in the run-up to polling day.

One Canberra insider said they will have kept some money back for election campaign promises.

Let’s hope so and let’s hope the Opposition will look at our priorities favourably, too.

For a more detailed analysis of what was in the budget 2019-20 of interest to seniors, please read on. You can also read our Federal Budget wrap-up on our website here.

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