May 22, 2008

Activism: Australian pensioners take shirts off in protest

Pensioners get shirts off in protest

14:34 AEST Fri May 16 2008

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Half-naked pensioners vent their anger.

Hundreds of pensioners, some shirtless, have disrupted traffic in Melbourne's city centre in a protest against the Rudd government's lack of support for seniors in the federal budget.

The protest, inspired by topless taxi drivers who won safety concessions after a city centre protest rally two weeks ago, was organised with the backing of Family First senator Stephen Fielding.

Mr Fielding stripped off his shirt in support of the protest, while two elderly women wore only their bras.

Several men also stripped to the waist after the protesters walked from the steps of Flinders St Station into the intersection with Swanston Street.

The protesters were calling for between $70 and $100 extra per week in their pensions.

Traffic returned to normal after about 15 minutes.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says any changes to the pension system may have to wait until the completion of a comprehensive review of Australia's tax system.

The review is being undertaken by the Treasury Secretary, Dr Ken Henry, who will release a discussion paper by the end of July and provide a final report to government by the end of 2009. [ed. note: !!!!!!!]

Mr Rudd said he understood it was difficult to make ends meet on the pension.

"I understand full well that people on the age pension are finding it very difficult, that's why we need to have a complete, all-round look at this through the Henry commission of inquiry," Mr Rudd said.

"It's very important to make sure we have a thorough, long-term response to the long-term challenges of retirement income policy and that means for pensioners, it means for carers and it means for others."

Meanwhile, the federal opposition's spokeswoman for ageing is proposing an increase to the aged pension, the day after her leader failed to mention it in his budget reply speech.

Margaret May intends circulating a petition calling for an increase to the fortnightly payments of $546.80 to a single pensioner and $456.80 each to couples.

But she admits her leader Brendan Nelson knows nothing about her plan.

"We discussed this last night, my staff and I," Ms May told Fairfax Radio Network on Friday.

"I think it's one way that we can get the message out there.

"I believe my leader will support me on this. I have discussed it with Brendan.

"What he doesn't know is that I'm releasing a petition but I believe I will have the support of my leader."

Ms May says she will be "very disappointed" if she doesn't get the backing of Dr Nelson.

"But that's what I'm prepared to do because I think these people (aged pensioners) have been ignored."

Dr Nelson, unaware of Ms May's comments, said pensioners and carers would be at the "top of our list" as the coalition wrote its policy platform.

"The level of the pension at the moment is inadequate," Dr Nelson told Fairfax Radio Network.

Assistant Treasurer Chris Bowen says the opposition is out of control.

"They are trying to be all things to all people and they really don't stand for anything anymore," he said.

"It just beggars belief. This is an opposition which is just out of control.

"They've thrown all economic credibility out the window.

"We all want to do more for pensioners but this is not the way to go about it. They are behaving, frankly, like school children."

Opposition treasury spokesman Malcolm Turnbull said later the coalition had no policy to lift base pension rates, but would consider a review of pensions.

He said Ms May was proposing a new policy, but it had no decision had yet been made about it.

"Margaret's entitled to launch a petition, if she likes, but it's not something that the shadow ministry or the leadership group have agreed to," he told Fairfax Radio Network.

"It's certainly something that we will take on board and look at very favourably but it is not - and I have to be very clear about this, there's no state of confusion, I'm not confused at all about this - it is not our policy."

Mr Turnbull said aged pensions were a key issue for the coalition.

"If we'd had a policy on that it would have been announced in Brendan's budget-in-reply last night."

Comment was being sought from Dr Nelson and Ms May.

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