27/06/2014 - 06:16

Seniors savings a pressure point

27/06/2014 - 06:16


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State and federal governments need to tread carefully when making changes to pensioner ‘entitlements’.

Seniors savings a pressure point
POWERFUL: Older Australians make up a large voting bloc and have a sensitive hip pocket nerve, so politicians underestimate them at their peril.

Treasurer Joe Hockey handed the premiers and chief ministers a nice little hand grenade when he decided to cut back on the subsidy to the states for seniors concession cards in his May budget.For Mr Hockey, it was one more cost he decided the Commonwealth should not have to meet, as he cast around for savings designed to help rein-in the multi-billion dollar budget deficit.

In a good year the decision would not have posed significant problems for his state counterparts; but this is not a good year for Western Australian Treasurer Mike Nahan, who is also searching for every dollar he can get his hands on.

The cut to WA is about $25 million in the coming financial year, and totals about $107 million over four years. It's not a huge amount, but it would be unwise to underestimate the likely impact of the savings that Dr Nahan has said he is now required to make at the expense of seniors cardholders.

Peter Dowding's Labor government introduced the card 1988. WA led the nation in a move designed to acknowledge the contribution of seniors, and also to win a few votes for the 1989 election. Politically it worked. Mr Dowding won in a tight finish, and other states were quick to see the merit in the new card.

Today, almost 350,00 older Western Australians have the card, entitling them to concessions ranging from free travel on public transport at designated times, to discounts on council and water rates, and visits to tourist attractions.

In fact the state government's website describes it as "one of the most generous in Australia". To be to eligible you need to be aged 60 years or more, a permanent resident, and work fewer than 25 hours a week.

But change is on the way, as beleaguered Community Services Minister Tony Simpson casts around for savings. The decision to halve the cost of living rebate is a calculated gamble and will inevitably attract strong criticism. A review of the system for 2015-16 could lead to further changes, including raising the qualifying age to 65, a prospect already attacked by opposition leader Mark McGowan.

Alternatively, the eligibility rules might be tightened and some of the concessions pruned. But Mr Simpson has indicated the free travel provisions are unlikely to change.

The political risks of a false move are obvious. The government does not want to antagonise a big bloc of older voters, especially aged pensioners already adjusting to changes in assessing their six-monthly increases, again courtesy of Mr Hockey.

The last time seniors mobilised was when Greypower was formed, and fielded 36 candidates in the 1989 state election, polling 5.2 per cent of the vote. But that included 12.8 per cent in Rockingham, 8.9 per cent in Peel and even 6.6 per cent in Nedlands. And their preferences could be crucial if history should repeat itself.

That's why Mr Simpson is working overtime to defuse Mr Hockey's grenade. It's no easy task.

(Disclosure: Peter Kennedy is a member of the Seniors Ministerial Advisory Council.)

Tentative reform

THE Labor Party has given the first tentative signs since last year's federal election defeat of needing to reform campaigning methods, including devoting increased attention to Western Australia, where it holds just three of the 15 House of Representative seats.

A specially commissioned federal report described the party's poor performance in the WA Senate by-election in April, at which it gained just one of the six seats up for grabs, as a "setback"

"Like the 2013 result, Labor must learn the lessons from this loss," the report said.

Federal Labor's support for the new carbon and mining taxes were considered negatives in its quest to win more WA seats. The report recognised the need to be more attentive to local issues

"It was ... clear that in a country as vast as Australia, uniform campaigning is not always effective," the report said. "Specifically, Western Australia and the Northern Territory require jurisdiction-specific strategies and staffing to run the most effective local campaigns.

"There were also some lessons to learn. Local campaigns and great candidates made a huge difference to our success, but we need to do even more to recognise local differences.

"This challenge has been brought home even more by the Western Australian Senate by-election in April 2014. One size doesn't fit all and there are specific challenges for communities in some parts of the country that don't apply to others."

Reform will also be on the agenda at Labor's state conference on July 5-6. Delegates will debate rule changes proposed by party leader Mark McGowan aimed at increasing democracy within the party. The changes, which include a proposal for increased participation in decision-making and internal ballots, are considered crucial to regaining wider community acceptance.

But the strong union voice in party forums, which contrasts with the declining union membership in the work force, is tipped to remain.


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