ABC NEWS 24

Topics: Retirement Incomes Legislation, Social Security Payments, waiting periods for newly arrived migrants, Religious Freedoms, Bradfield Federal Electorate Conference.

 E&OE:

GREG JENNETT: Now, we're talking about these legislative in and out trays, and no one's watching them more closely than senior ministers who want their programs passed into law this calendar year, if possible.

The Families and Social Services Minister Paul Fletcher is among them. He's one from two when it comes to having some of his favoured welfare measures passed, so we checked in with Paul Fletcher on those and other matters just a few moments ago.

Well, Paul Fletcher, like a lot of senior ministers, you've got a legislative agenda to get through and not much time to do it. In your case, a bill for pensioners about 90,000 would be better off if this goes through. Will that happen within this sitting fortnight?

PAUL FLETCHER: Well, the bill has been introduced and expected to be debated today or tomorrow. And under that bill, we're giving pensioners more choice and more options for the income that they rely on in retirement. So, the Pension Bonus will go from $250 to $300 a fortnight. That's an amount you can earn without it affecting the test for your pension of your income.

It doesn't reduce your pension. So that gives people more options they can go out and earn some money.

We're also giving people the opportunity to borrow against their home to get a loan payment that will come through Centrelink and gets added to your pension. And what you'll be able to do is borrow an amount so that the total payment you receive, comprising your pension and the loan payment, can be up to 150 per cent.

GREG JENNETT: This was, I think, a Budget measure, was it not?

PAUL FLETCHER: That's right.

GREG JENNETT: With such limited time available now so there's today and tomorrow and then there's but one week, really, before the Budget next year why wasn't this managed as a priority a little earlier? Why are we looking at the clock here with one and a half days remaining this year?

PAUL FLETCHER: Oh look, we've been working pretty assiduously on this.

The third element of the bill is really the answer to your question because there's some measures in there to change the income tests and the asset tests to deal with annuity.

We've made some changes because we want to encourage people to take up those kind of products if it suits them. Because of the technicalities, there has been several months of consultation with the financial services sector on those issues and that's why it's taken a little bit of time to get this legislation.

GREG JENNETT: Fair enough.

PAUL FLETCHER: It's now in and I don't expect it's going to be particularly controversial.

So, I'm hopeful we'll be able to get it through the House reasonably quickly, then it will need to go to the Senate. So, that will be next year but I'm pretty hopeful we'll get that done.

GREG JENNETT: Yep, that accounts for that delay. And I think you're right the indications from Labor are that it'll probably get through.

There was also another bill that has been passed by the Parliament this week, and that would mean that new migrants to Australia have to wait longer before they can avail themselves of welfare payments. How have you satisfied yourself that no-one or very few people as new settlers in this country would be worse off, vulnerable, because of this change?

PAUL FLETCHER: What we've done here is change the rules so that for a series of payments, particularly working-age payments like Newstart, you need to have been in Australia for four years before you're eligible to go on those payments.

Now, bear in mind the great majority of people who migrate to Australia do so under the Skilled Migration Program, so they've been already tested and found to have highly relevant qualifications, skills, experience, and in fact the employment outcomes of people coming into Australia on the Skilled Migration Program is very, very good.

GREG JENNETT: So, very few. You expect very few, because of that track record, to be in a situation where at the start of year two in Australia, they were down on their luck and needed the dole. You're [indistinct] very few would suffer because of this?

PAUL FLETCHER: We think that'll be pretty unlikely. It's important to make the point there is an existing safety net for people in that situation.

That safety net will continue; that's called the significant Change of Circumstances Exemptions. History suggests that people who come in on this basis do very well in employment terms. It makes sense to say we'd love to have you in Australia be aware when you arrive, you can't access our social security system for four years in terms of this designated range of working-age payments.

GREG JENNETT: Alright. Okay, let's step outside of your portfolio - a couple of things for the Government generally. Religious freedom the Prime Minister seems to be holding out what I guess he would describe as an olive branch. Do you believe that will pass before Parliament rises this year?

PAUL FLETCHER: I'll leave those projections to others. But what I'll simply say is the Prime Minister has articulated very clearly this morning our approach on this issue and the importance of religious freedom. It is an issue of great concern to many Australians, that's why we had the Ruddock Review earlier this year, that's why we've gone through a careful Cabinet process and the Prime Minister has set out this morning the approach that he'll be taking to the Parliament.

GREG JENNETT: Time's definitely running out on that. Monday - you're in the party room that decided in future it would take a two-third majority to remove a sitting Prime Minister.

Just your understanding of the rules on this the Prime Minister says that stands until it takes a two-third majority of the party room to knock it off. Why would that be the case? I mean, it was in essence established with a simple majority why wouldn't a future party room remove it with a simple majority?

PAUL FLETCHER: Well, it's inherent in the very nature of the rule that the party room has now agreed to and there's very strong support for it. The rule is that when a leader of the Liberal Party ...

GREG JENNETT: In government?

PAUL FLETCHER: When a leader of the Liberal Party has been elected, he or she comes in as Prime Minister, that there will be no change to that leader during that term that's the rule. And then we also say: any change to that rule would require a two-thirds majority in the party room. So, that's the way it's set out.

What that means is the Australian people can have confidence at the next election that the prime minister they elect - assuming, as I hope and expect they will, they elect Scott Morrison as Prime Minister, they can be confident that that decision will stand for the next term. It's not going to be overturned by the party room.

GREG JENNETT: So, it was clear in your mind when you voted on it that that second threshold, that is, the one we're talking about, it will take a two-thirds majority in the future to change it?

PAUL FLETCHER: Absolutely.

GREG JENNETT: It was clear in your mind.

PAUL FLETCHER: Absolutely, no question of that, yes.

GREG JENNETT: Fair enough, we're not there, so we're asking the question.

Finally, the Roseville branch of the Liberal Party it's in your electorate - it's the one that's going after Malcolm Turnbull, actually wants him expelled from the party. As the Member in that area, what's your attitude towards their position adopted and has anything Malcolm Turnbull's done this week perhaps reinforced their call for this to happen?

PAUL FLETCHER: Look, the Liberal Party is a robust democracy. When I was pre-selected, for example, there were 17 candidates in the pre-election process a very robust democratic process. I have many outstanding branches in what's called the Bradfield Federal Electorate Conference who support me.

I am very grateful for the work of all of the party members in my electorate of Bradfield and all around Australia. The work they do is so vital to our democracy.

GREG JENNETT: You don't ask them to cool their heels, though, when they start going after a former prime minister, and I think a friend of yours don't you intervene at some point and say: please, cease and desist?

PAUL FLETCHER: Look, we have democratic process in our party. Branches are free to move motions as they choose. That's a motion by a branch, let me hasten to add, a motion by a branch expressing an opinion on something is a very different thing from a decision being taken by the party. I don’t….

GREG JENNETT: You don't think it's going to happen?

PAUL FLETCHER: It's a very different thing.

I don't think it's going to happen. I celebrate the fact that the Liberal Party is a robust democracy and I am very appreciative of the work of all of my party members in Bradfield and all of the Liberal Party members around the country they play an important part in our democracy.

GREG JENNETT: Do you celebrate Malcolm Turnbull's high profile adopted this week?

PAUL FLETCHER: Malcolm Turnbull, as a private citizen, is absolutely welcome to contribute to public debate and of course he has a lot of experience, a lot of perspectives, and I'm sure we will continue to hear from Malcolm.

That's entirely his right.

GREG JENNETT: Polite and diplomatic. This might be the last time we speak to you on the News channel this year, Paul Fletcher, so we'll thank you and look forward to talking to you again next year.

PAUL FLETCHER: And a great Christmas to all your viewers.

[ENDS]