The introduction of an increase for single pensioners and pensioner couples has attracted extensive media coverage. Yet neither the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. nor the Minister for Human Services, Chris Bowen, nor the Minister for Community Services, Jenny Macklin, seem to have been interviewed about the stringent new Centrelink rules for old folks.

In a recent letter to pensioners, titled “Changes to your pension”, signed by both Jenny Macklin and Chris Bowen, recipients were urged to carefully study the fact sheets enclosed. No wonder. That material reveals, for instance, that aged pensioners who supplement their pensions with paid employment, even occasionally, must now report their circumstances to Centrelink every fortnight, irrespective of whether they (or their partners) actually secured any paid employment during the previous 14 days.

The penalty for non compliance will be the cessation of their pension payments.

As a result of age discrimination in the workplace and the current tough economic times, most pensioners consider themselves extremely lucky if they are able to supplement their pension with even occasional paid casual work. Yet those lucky enough to get regular work will certainly be better off under the new rules. For example, a pensioner couple will be able to earn a joint total of about $500 a fortnight without any reduction in their pensions.

It is stressed, in the information despatched with the Macklin/Bowen letter, that no one will be worse off under the new rules. Yet it seems that pensioners who happen to be seasonal workers will, in fact, be worse off if they receive a lump sum payment at the end of their engagement. This group includes the many pensioners who help to supervise Higher School Certificate and university exams each year. If a pensioner couple is lucky enough to get 12 or 14 days work, they may end up with a joint earnings that total nearly $3,000.

Under the old rules, they were permitted to earn that one-off payment without penalty. Yet a Centrelink supervisor advised on Friday that under the new rules, which purport “to provide an incentive for senior workers to be in the workforce”, pensioners who receive such a large, albeit one-off, lump sum payment will have their next fortnightly joint pension payment cancelled.

That information was confirmed by another supervisor who also reported that although casual workers, including pensioners who help to conduct exams, often have to wait a month or six weeks to be paid, they must report their anticipated earnings at the end of the fortnight in which they earned that money. This is irrespective of the fact that pensioners may have their pensions cancelled for at least a fortnight because of those anticipated earnings. So unless they have savings, they will find themselves with nothing to live on for several weeks.

A close reading of the 10 pages of facts about the new rules suggests that by July next year adjustments will have been introduced that may remedy perceived anomalies. In the meantime, pensioners with “complex financial arrangements” are advised that they can request to talk to “a financial information service officer” who might help them explore a new “transitional rate until they are no longer worse off under the new rules.”

Yet on Friday Centrelink staff seemed unable to provide cogent information about any transitional arrangements.

So imagine the confusion and hardship the new rules may well cause many elderly people. Surely Jenny Macklin and Chris Bowen should be asked about the plight of, say, a pensioner who through illness or some other calamity wakes up on pension day to find their payment has been suspended because they forgot to contact Centrelink to report that neither they nor their partner (if they are lucky enough to have one) earned anything in the previous fortnight?

The consensus is that there are few joys in being old, but one of them used to be a comparative lack of bureaucratic intrusion into daily life.

These days, increasingly in Australia, it seems pensioners are burdened with endless inquiries, including multi-page questionaires demanding detailed information about the slightest change in their financial and personal circumstances.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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