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10 March 2014

Tony Abbott avoids question on changes to seniors health cards

Tony Abbott said he was still studying the recommendations in the audit commission's interim report

The Abbott government is facing fresh calls to release its audit commission's advice after suggestions the team looking for budget savings has targeted the commonwealth seniors health card.

The card provides self-funded retirees with discounts on prescription medicines and doctors' appointments and also entitles holders to receive a seniors supplement of up to $858 each year.

It is available to people of pension age with an annual taxable income of less than $50,000 for singles or $80,000 for couples. It is not subject to an assets test.

The government's commission of audit will call for a tightening of the commonwealth seniors health card's eligibility rules, according to a News Corp report published on Sunday.

One possible change would be the inclusion of income from superannuation investments in the income test, the report said.

The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, did not directly answer questions on Sunday about the potential inclusion of superannuation earnings in the income test for the card.

But he pointed to his election promise to index the income test thresholds in line with the consumer price index. The election policy document said the card's $50,000 and $80,000 income tests had not been increased since 2001 and the promise would cost the government $100 million over four years.

We made an absolutely crystal clear commitment before the election to index the eligibility thresholds and we will keep our commitments, Abbott said in Adelaide.
We've got the audit commission's interim report; we're carefully studying it to see which recommendations might be suitable for implementation in the upcoming budget. It will be released but it will be released at the right time not at the wrong time.

The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, accused the government of hiding the interim report until after next weekend's state elections in South Australia and Tasmania and the West Australian Senate election next month.

Self-funded retirees and older Australians deserve better from Tony Abbott, Shorten said in Melbourne.
At the very least, if he's intending to cut and slash their conditions, he should at least have the courage to tell them the truth, he said.

It is weak of Tony Abbott to have 900 pages of nasty surprises, and not tell people until they've voted in Tasmania and South Australia and, significantly, in the West Australian Senate election.

Shorten did not comment in detail on the proposed tightening of eligibility for the cards, saying the proposal could not be scrutinised until the details were released.

I know that self-funded retirees have worked hard their whole lives, they don't get a lot back from government. I'm alarmed that the Abbott government has got the conditions of self-funded retirees squarely in their sights, he said.

Abbott urged people not to listen to Shorten's 'scare stories'.

What I want to make absolutely crystal clear is that, in the lead-up to the budget, we'll see speculation in the media, we'll see more and more scares from Bill Shorten but what you will see on budget night is a government which keeps its commitments, he said.

The Coalition's policy document said self-funded retirees had made a significant contribution to the success of the nation over their life times and we should not be discouraging seniors from being self-reliant by constantly reducing entitlement to the commonwealth seniors health card.

The commission of audit, headed by the president of the Business Council of Australia, Tony Shepherd, is looking across all areas of government for potential budget savings, efficiencies and outsourcing. Labor and the Greens argued the exercise was designed to pave the way for severe cuts.

Rumours about the extent of the interim recommendations emerged as Abbott launched the Liberal Party's campaign for the South Australian election.

Voters in South Australia and Tasmania go to the ballot box next Saturday and polls indicate the long-term Labor governments in both states are likely to lose office.

At the launch in Adelaide, Abbott said he looked forward to working with the South Australian Liberal leader, Steven Marshall, who would not provoke 'unseemly' public brawls.

Six months ago we had a change of government in Canberra, Abbott said. What we need next weekend is a change of government here in Adelaide.

Marshall vowed to focus on growing the economy, saying he loved South Australia but it's not a great state if you don't have a job.

The Labor premier, Jay Weatherill, previously launched his own campaign with a promise to prioritise jobs and a warning that the Liberals would pursue damaging budget cuts.

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