Mrs PHILLIPS (Gilmore) (17:02): My electorate of Gilmore, on the New South Wales South Coast, has one of the oldest demographics of any electorate in Australia. Not only this, as a regional town with farming roots and that old country attitude, we are also incredibly hardworking people. When you've worked hard your whole life, whether that be on the family farm, in the local hospital or in the local cafe, it's not so simple to just say: 'That's it. I'm done now. Time for retirement and living off a pension.' With the cost of living rising higher and higher every day, it's also not viable for many people, particularly for those who have worked in the caring, hospitality or health sectors, as just a couple of examples—and especially for women.
Sadly, over my years in this job, I have heard regularly from pensioners who tell me they feel like they are punished if they work more. They have worked hard their entire lives and they are now entitled to the age pension, but, if they keep working—even just a little bit—that pension is reduced, making it not worth it. They may as well not work because the extra hours don't actually give them anything extra in their pocket. It's incredibly frustrating for many, not just because they like or, in many cases, need the extra income but also because they are trying to keep themselves busy, trying to help their community and trying to do their bit.
Regional areas like ours are also struggling through an unprecedented workers crisis. We actually can't afford to lose our qualified nurses and doctors, our cleaners, our farmers, our tradies or our hospitality workers. Local businesses are struggling to stay afloat and struggling to find people with skills—just struggling to find anyone. It's something I am hearing all too often from local businesses across the South Coast.
Put all that together—an ageing population that feels punished for working and a workforce that is crying out for skilled and willing labour—and you've got the perfect storm. That's where this bill comes in and why I am so proud today to rise in support of the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Transition to Work) Bill 2023. This is the perfect solution to that perfect storm and one that is so very welcome in my electorate of Gilmore on the New South Wales South Coast. It answers the call of hundreds of local pensioners, it answers the call of hundreds of local businesses. It'll help keep our economy moving and help local pensioners keep up with the cost of living. What could be better?
In the very first few months after winning last year's federal election, the Albanese government announced we would hold the Jobs and Skills Summit. We did this because we knew Australia was facing unprecedented challenges in the employment sector and we wanted to bring all sides of this together in one room to map out our employment white paper, which was released in September this year. The white paper outlines our vision for a dynamic and inclusive labour market where everyone has the opportunity for secure, fairly paid work. To ensure that local voices were heard during the Jobs and Skills Summit, I held the Gilmore Jobs Summit Survey to find out what local people and businesses needed and what challenges they were facing and to hear their innovative solutions. Guess what? High on the list of solutions was allowing pensioners to work more hours without it impacting on their pension rate. Many people who responded to my survey talked about the underutilisation of, and barriers for, older workers. Many respondents talked about age discrimination and the disincentives to work that were built into the welfare system. Suggestions were made to change the impact of work on access to the pension, allowing more hours to be worked before deductions were triggered.
Older Australians have the skills, and many have the will to contribute, but they are kept outside the workforce because of these structural barriers. Peter said we should 'realign the pension system to give incentives for able-age workers to contribute to the workforce'. Rodney said we should 'increase the amount of wages that people on the age pension can earn before their pensions are affected'. Felicity referred to our older Australians as an 'untapped resource'. She said:
… many have skills, capacity and desire to work in retail, hospitality, but a major disincentive is the loss of benefits applicable should they work more than very minimal hours per week.
She went on to say:
With many of our businesses unable to operate for full opening hours or days, and a significant older population in the region, surely this is a potential solution?
Felicity said this is a 'win-win option—increased trading and income for businesses, plus earnings for employees that then have spending capacity and increased feelings of connection and worth in our community'. You know what, Felicity? We agree. I put these ideas in Gilmore's submission to the Jobs and Skills Summit, and, following the summit, the government put in place temporary measures that allowed age pensioners to work more hours without it impacting their pension. A commonsense solution brought forward by local people, listened to by government and implemented—how great is that? It's democracy at work.
This bill makes those temporary measures permanent. It implements the changes which were announced in our employment white paper in September. To put it simply, we are giving older Australians more choice and flexibility to participate in the workforce by permanently enhancing the pension work bonus. It includes an up-front credit of $4,000 to all new pension entrants over age pension age and to eligible veterans, and it permanently increases the maximum work bonus income balance from $7,800 to $11,800. This means that existing pensioners will continue to benefit from the elevated maximum work bonus balance of $11,800, with new pension entrants over age pension age to receive a starting balance of $4,000 instead of zero.
Older Australians give so much to our community, and having them continue to work for as long as they want and are able is only a good thing. It gives businesses invaluable skills, knowledge and experience while allowing them to keep the doors open. It helps to keep these highly valued members of our community engaged with purpose and connection. It has health and mental health benefits for them and others as well—not to mention the economic benefits. There are only wins every way you look at it. Having a system that is set up to disincentivise or, at worst, punish them for wanting to stay active and contribute to our economy makes no sense whatsoever. People in our community recognise that. They called for it, and we have delivered it here today. These changes will take effect from 1 January 2024, with no gap between the existing temporary measure and the commencement of the new ongoing provisions.
I could not be prouder to be part of a government that has listened to the views and concerns of the Australian people and businesses and that has made changes to better support them. We are serious about setting up a workforce structure for the future, one that is ready and prepared to meet the challenges Australia will face and is facing. Our Employment White Paper makes this a transparent process. It has made it a collaborative process. We have listened to industry, we have listened to consumers, we have listened to workers and we have made well-thought-out, economically viable, commonsense changes that will make a difference.
Over the last 18 months we have made a lot of really important changes to help and support those doing it tough. We've increased the rate of working age and student payments by $40 per fortnight. We've increased the maximum rate of Commonwealth Rent Assistance by 15 per cent, expanded eligibility for Parenting Payment Single to single principal carers until the youngest child turns 14—up from eight previously. We've increased the income threshold for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card to help an additional 10,893 older Australians access the card. That is just to name a few.
This bill introduces another support by expanding the nil-rate period from six to 12 fortnights, and expanding access to the nil-rate period for those who enter full employment. What this means is people who have been receiving support payments such as JobSeeker, Youth Allowance, Abstudy, the Parenting Payment, the age pension, the Disability Support Pension and the carer payment can re-enter the workforce knowing that their safety net is still behind them should they need it. It means people can stay active in a system, retaining benefits like concession cards, childcare subsidies and other supplementary payments for a bit longer. If things don't work out for whatever reason—as we know can sometimes happen—people won't have to reapply or wait for the income support to come back. It helps to remove yet another disincentive, particularly for short-term contracts, casual work or work in the gig economy. The safety net remains a backup that is there when it is needed—as it should be.
When work comes up, no matter what it might look like, people should have no hesitation in saying yes. It shouldn't be in the back of their mind that when their contract is up they will be left with nothing but a long bureaucratic process. This will help reduce those barriers, keeping access to the supplementary benefits and automatically restoring payments if circumstances change. This is just one more way that the Albanese government is making sure help is there when it is needed most—by those who need it most.
There is no doubt we are facing tough economic times. Regional areas are harder hit than most, and local people want to know that their government is working to do everything possible to support them. Our 10-point plan on the cost of living is our highest priority, targeted to where people need it most. I have already mentioned several of these measures, but they are only the beginning.
We have given electricity bill rebates of up to $500 to around five million households—a common issue I hear and something that can make a big difference. We have made child care cheaper, helping families on $120,000 with one child in care save around $1,700 a year. At the same time, we are expanding paid parental leave to 26 weeks by 2026—good news for families and our economy. We have made medicines cheaper. I'm so proud of this in particular because we all heard the cries that the sky would fall in if medicines were cheaper, but those changes came in and—guess what? The sky hasn't fallen in. Instead, millions of Australians had the cost of their medicines for many chronic conditions halved with 60-day dispensing. On top of that, we have also brought the maximum copayment on prescriptions down from $42.50 to $30—significant cost savings now. We have tripled the bulk-billing incentive, which came into effect just this month and is helping children, pensioners and concession cardholders see a bulk-billed GP.
What else? Our Housing Australian Future Fund has officially started, building and supporting the supply of more affordable homes through our $10 billion fund, as well as our $3 billion new homes bonus and our $2 billion social housing accelerator. I was a TAFE teacher, so you can bet that I am super excited that we have made TAFE fee-free for tens of thousands of students. TAFE, and vocational education in all its forms, changes lives. I've seen it firsthand, and we have made it so much easier to access. It's an exhaustive list, but it has been well thought out. It won't add to inflation; it will go to where it's needed most and to who needs it most. It's good for our country, it's good for people in my electorate and it's good for our future. I'll keep working hard every single day to ensure that local people in my electorate get the support they need when they need it. I commend this bill to the House.