The Urgent Relief for Single Age Pensioners Bill 2008 passed the Senate last night — that’s the one giving a $30 a week rise to single pensioners.

Funny thing happened, though, on the way through.

Bob Brown spoke on the measure and was easily the most economically sensible speaker in support of it. First of all, Brown insisted on the measure actually being voted on rather than merely debated yesterday, noting that if everyone outside the Government thought it was so urgent to give pensioners a rise then they should quit playing politics and get on with it.

Then he said something even more sensible. Forgive the Alan Ramsey approach, but this is what he said:

I ask the Opposition, should you not at least be costing this matter before the Senate? Where are your estimates of how much this will cost?… They are going to say , on the one hand, “spend $2b or $3b” — and it may end up being more than that — “to give pensioners what they deserve”.

But on the other hand, they are going to say “We will not support legislation on luxury cars, on condensate” — this multibillion dollar windfall for Woodside and other big corporations where the executives get multibillion dollar take-home pay – “or on the Medicare levy. We will not support the government getting that revenue, but we want to take out of the Exchequer some billions of dollars.” I say that is not responsible… you need to look at how you are going to raise that money…

Brown directed the same question at Steve Fielding. The Greens, of course, voted against the most recent round of tax cuts, so they are temporarily in a state of fiscal purity on this issue.

Brown also adeptly exposed the Coalition’s priorities on pensions. Having insisted that the Government’s budget bills be put aside for the Pension bill (although only to be debated, not to be passed), the Coalition could only muster one speaker on it. Helen Coonan — in her last gig as Human Services spokesman — spoke briefly on the importance of giving pensioners an increase, then sat down, and no one else on the Coalition side was there to speak in support.

Which is a bit of a contrast to the luxury car tax bill, where there are a number of Coalition senators listed to speak. The Opposition needs a new manager of business in the Senate.

The Government insists that conducting a review of retirement incomes is the best approach. Reviews, of course, are terribly unfashionable at the moment. Reviews are for bureaucrats and 24/Kevin wheelspinners. Reviews are for government who talk a lot but do little.

Maybe. But I don’t mind people taking their time deciding how my taxes are going to be spent, however good the cause. Especially not when the size of the surplus is one of the key differences between the Australian economy and everyone else’s.

This Government reviews a lot and cops heaps for it. It is steady-as-she-goes, good-process policy development much beloved by old-school bureaucrats. It is easily mocked and even more easily portrayed as heartless when pensioners, or anyone else, are “doing it tough”. But history suggests it’s about the best way to actually work out how to address significant policy issues. And that doesn’t change however much the Opposition wants to make political capital out of it, and however much the media demands action.

Peter Fray

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