Australian government further impinges on the rights of pensioners to travel or live overseas

In early 2012 I wrote a submission to the Australian Government Inquiry into the Asian century called ‘Parity for Pensioner Pariahs’. In that submission I addressed the topic of ‘portability’ of welfare benefits, and considered its impact on the ability of Australian citizens to access affordable care facilities overseas.

Fast forward to May 2014 and I’m fuming about changes to the rights of Australian welfare recipients to travel and live overseas announced in last night’s Federal Budget.

Under current regulations the Disability Support Pension (DSP) can be paid for absences from Australia for up to six weeks, on multiple occasions in any one year. In addition, a small number of exemptions are granted depending on assessment on a case-by-case basis.

It is now proposed that DSP recipients who leave Australia on or after 1 January 2015 will only receive DSP for a maximum of four weeks in a 12-month period. The Government claims that this move will result in savings of $12.3 million over five years.  

Another change that was announced was that of limiting the six week portability period for student payments from 1 October 2014
to generally align the portability period for student payment recipients (Youth Allowance, Austudy and ABSTUDY) with the rules for job seekers. Recipients of student payments will no longer be eligible for payment while overseas on holiday.

In addition, the relevant Minister has indicated that he would like to see a uniform approach taken to all welfare recipients. Thus it is highly likely that further restrictions will eventually be imposed in relation to, for example, recipients of the aged pension.

This tightening-up of regulations was foreshadowed by the media, for example in an article in the Courier Mail entitled ‘Travel bans to ground disability pensioners’. Extracts from that article, together with my response, are provided below.

“Disability support pensioners will be banned from travelling overseas for more than four weeks at a time as part of Budget crackdown on welfare cheats.”

Oh, ok, let’s label pensioners who travel/live overseas as “welfare cheats”, despite them presumably meeting all existing eligibility requirements.

 “The Government will tighten “portability” rules for the Disability Support Pension to crack down on recipients taking holidays at taxpayer expense or living in places like Bali while claiming they are in Australia.”

Loaded statement. They are a taxpayer expense where-ever they are located – unless they can be coerced into relinquishing the right to welfare support accorded to other Australian citizens.

“Taxpayers spend about $100 million a year on payments to 7,313 disability support pensioners who live overseas.”

Irrelevant point – would this amount be any less if they stayed in Australia the whole time?

The Government has already cut trip times for these pensioners from 13 weeks to six weeks to reduce the risk of them basing themselves in cheap destinations like Bali and flying in and out of Australia to meet residency requirements.”

Hmm, sounds serious. But in what way does their choice to base themselves there constitute a “risk”?

Mr Andrews said he eventually wanted a consistent approach to travel rules for all who received welfare payments.”

Aha, then I guess we can assume that the four week absence rule will soon apply to old age pensioners too, right? They already can’t afford to live in the mainstream Australian community, so perhaps the Government might need to create cost-effective special settlements for them – perhaps somewhere in the outback?

“The question here is what’s fair from the community point of view given that people are in receipt of benefits and that’s the balance we’ve got to try and achieve”.

No Minister, the question is whether economic logic tempered with some compassion should drive government policy, or whether pandering to ill-informed bias and media-inspired stereotypes should dictate how our government treats its citizens.

Yes, you bet I’m angry about this progressive winding back of peoples’ right to be absent for extended periods or to relocate to their country of choice. I’m angry not only because it is unfair, but also because it doesn’t even make economic sense.

The Government decides who qualifies for citizenship, and who is therefore potentially eligible for welfare payments. The Government determines the eligibility criteria for particular forms of welfare (other than residence), and how much people are paid. I’m not buying into those broad issues, other than to say that if there is a problem with those determinations then fix that problem and don’t try to balance the books by pushing people overboard on the basis of a bogus “crack-down” on “welfare cheats”.

Minister Andrews, is it not a fact that if everyone receiving benefits abroad  simply returned to and/or remained in Australia, then these tightened residence restrictions would have had the effect of actually costing tax-payers substantially more money? [see footnote] Has this not been established in research undertaken by the Government? Research that seems to have been quietly shelved … perhaps because it went against what the radio shock-jocks were telling us, and what the man-in-the-street preferred to believe?

I don’t believe for one moment that savings of anything like the forecast figure of $12.3 million will be achieved. In fact the only way the tightened residence restrictions can result in any savings is if welfare recipients stay overseas and conveniently drop out of the welfare system. I believe that this is most likely the real objective of the Government’s announcement.

Just for the sake of argument though, let’s say half of those affected obliged the Government by dropping out of the welfare system (saving taxpayer$). Let’s say the other half returned to and/or stayed in Australia (costing more taxpayer$). Even if that meant tighter controls on travel became a zero-sum game in a monetary sense, the government could care less given that it still gains some advantage just by being seen to be strong on welfare rorting.

Thus these further restrictions are not about stopping welfare rorts, they are about getting otherwise eligible Australian citizens off welfare. This will be achieved by forcing people to choose between living in penury in the suburbs watching TV 24/7, or living in somewhat great comfort in warmer and more exotic locales.

I’m angry because these changes really does seem to be all about pandering to a media-created perception that if people can afford to travel overseas then they don’t need and/or deserve welfare payments.

It really is very sad that Australian Government policy formulation has descended to this low level of rigour and vision, and that it has reflects poorly on the potential of the country we are creating for the next generation.

It was extremely disappointing to note that all of the major newspapers were content to unquestioningly parrot the same line. So much for the benefits of a free and independent press! In reviewing the readers’ comments appended to the article at http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/youre-paying-100m-for-pensioners-to-live-overseas/story-fni0fiyv-1226901383832, it was however gratifying to note the number of people who saw through the charade and expressed opposition to the further tightening of residence restrictions.

Interestingly, a similar biased pattern of behaviour towards expat pensioners is being demonstrated by the British Government, see:

http://www.survivefrance.com/profiles/blogs/british-expat-pensioners-to-be-given-badge-of-shame-by-british-go

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/pensions/10665839/Frozen-pensions-force-expats-to-come-home.html

Footnote: For those of you who are asking how welfare recipients who stay away from Australia could possibly be SAVING the taxpayer big bucks …

Most welfare payments and Government services are already denied to citizens outside Australia. That means that when (in this case) disability pensioners return to Australia they become eligible for (for example) rental assistance payments, subsidised medicine, and access to public hospitals/Medicare. Then factor in government subsidies on aged care home placements for some. Really, the list just goes on from there. And don’t forget to include the pensioner’s spouse and perhaps children, and the support (e.g. family assistance payments) and services that they receive/use.

OK so those are immediate costs arising from forcing pensioners to spend at least 48 weeks of the year in Australia. But what about the additional (taxpayer-funded) costs incurred should pensioners’ physical and/or mental health deteriorate as a result of poorer diet, colder weather, and the onset of depression and anxiety related to their reduced circumstances in a country with much higher costs, higher stress, and lesser amenity?

Now some might say, “well why don’t we make sure that no-one receives any government benefits if/when outside Australia“. To that I’d say why? On what basis? The constitution doesn’t include provision for two classes of citizenship, e.g. citizen and citizen lite. Why – especially in this much-touted age of globalisation – should expats only deserve a portion of the rights and benefits of citizenship accorded to those back home in Oz?

Postscript: In July 2014 I prepared a submission to another federal government inquiry into proposed changes to the welfare system – you can read it at http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/Social_Services_2014_Budget_Measures/Submissions (refer submission #28)

Postscript 25 February 2015: The report of the Inquiry mentioned above has now been released and can be accessed at https://www.dss.gov.au/our-responsibilities/review-of-australias-welfare-system. There was virtually no discussion of the issue of portability of benefits. This summary of proposed changes indicates an intention to “limit the period for which Disability Support Pension (DSP) recipients can travel overseas and remain eligible to 28 days in a 12 month period (with some exceptions for special circumstances)“.

Postscript 25 January 2016: I noticed this article in The Age today, it’s entitled ‘Moves to limit overseas travel for pensioners ‘discriminatory’ say migrant, refugee groups

12th International Conference on Thai studies (April 2014)

Melb magazine, April 2014 edition

The International Conference on Thai Studies is held every three years, hosted either by a Thai university or by a university outside of Thailand where there is an interest in Thai studies. The University of Sydney is hosting the next conference from 22 to 24 April 2014.

The conference program is available at http://sydney.edu.au/southeast-asia-centre/documents/pdf/icts-program.pdf

Another bad season for air pollution in Northern Thailand

Melb magazine, April 2014 edition

Many readers would be aware that the air quality in northern Thailand is often poor around March/April, with some years being worse than others. This year has been another bad one, and as it always does in the bad years, the government has promised tough measures to address the problem.

Thick haze has been blanketing the North for weeks now and has even forced the diversion of some flights Chiang Mai airport due to poor visibility. The Chiang Mai Natural Resources and Environment Office attributed the haze to a high pressure system covering the North and the continued burning of farm fields.

Meanwhile the governor of Chiang Mai has attracted criticism for asking reporters at a media conference to stop wearing facemasks because it was bad for the province’s image, and would alarm visitors. People were displeased that the governor appeared more concerned about the image of Chiang Mai than the health of its people. As many as 60,000 people in the North are said to be suffering from respiratory problems as a result of all the dust and smoke in the air.

kids_with_masks_cnx

Students wear facemasks to protect themselves from pollution in Chiang Mai. (Photo by Cheewin Sattha)

Further information at:

http://www.bangkokpost.com/breakingnews/399877/chiang-mai-air-quality-health-threat

http://www.thaivisa.com/forum/topic/692704-smoke-smog-dust-2014-chiang-mai/

http://www.chiangmaicitynews.com/news.php?id=3565

http://www.chiangmainews.com/ecmn/viewfa.php?id=4010

 

Financial Advisors: Friend or foe?

Melb magazine, December 2013 edition

There is a widespread perception amongst the general public that financial advisors are rogues and not to be trusted, and this is particularly apparent when the subject of discussion is expat financial advisors working in Thailand. This is unfortunate as good financial advisors certainly do exist, and many people would benefit greatly from receiving competent and unbiased financial advice from them.

One problem that I often encounter involves expats who are paid in Thailand but who are advised to invest offshore, sometimes in so-called ‘tax havens’ and/or via quite complex investment vehicles. In many cases, considering all the various costs, benefits and risks involved, this is a bad move for the investor.  One factor that must be considered in such situations are the benefits offered by Thailand’s taxation regime – such as for example the tax concessions related to investment in long-term mutual funds.

If you are considering using a financial advisor you should undertake research about both the company and the individual from which you intend to receive advice. This can be as simple as using ‘Google’, and also searching through relevant discussion threads in online forums. Be sure to determine exactly what qualifications, licenses and accreditation are held by the financial advisor. Some good background information to help you with this process is available at http://international-adviser.com/news/asia/thai-expat-focussed-advisory-firms-consider

And remember that it is important, regardless of whether or not you choose to use a financial advisor, to learn as much as you can about financial planning and different types of investments before committing yourself. My book, ‘Your Investment Guide to Thailand’ is a particularly helpful resource in this regard. Those working in Thailand should also study the Thai tax system, and a good starting point is a free guidebook produced by PriceWaterhouse Coopers – refer www.pwc.com/en_TH/th/tax/assets/2012/thai-tax-2012-booklet.pdf

 

Australian Government reviews consular support

Melb magazine, February 2014 edition

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is currently studying public submissions as part of a review of Australia’s Consular Strategy. Details concerning this process can be found at http://dfat.gov.au/dept/consular/issues.html

In 2012/13 DFAT helped about twelve thousand Australian travelers in difficulty, provided $209,126 in emergency loans, issued 774 updates to travel advisories, and registered 1,179,335 people in the ‘Smartraveller’ database system. With the demand for consular services rising and government budgets under pressure, DFAT recognizes that significant changes may need to take place in order to guarantee an appropriate level of support for Australian travelers and expats.

The Issues Paper prepared by DFAT poses many questions, including:

Who should be able to access consular assistance?

What can be done to improve public understanding of the consular role?

What consular services should continue to be delivered, and what services could be reduced or withdrawn?

Is there scope to improve the delivery of services, for example through greater use of digital and online services?

Is there scope for DFAT to improve its systems for traveler registration, travel alerts and crisis response?

How effective are DFAT’s systems for dealing with feedback on consular assistance?

One specific issue to be addressed is how best to deal with Australians who find themselves in financial difficulty whilst travelling or living overseas, for example as a result of medical problems. This topic has been raised in Thailand in recent times, due to its potential to financially impact on the Thai health system. It will be interesting to see the extent to which DFAT’s recommendations tie-in with measures being considered by the Thai authorities, such as compulsory medical insurance (possibly in the form of a special ticket levy). Another issue of concern to Australians living in Thailand is that of finding a viable alternative to being forced to travel to/from our embassy in Bangkok to undertake simple administrative procedures such as the signing of statutory declarations.

 

Tourists behaving badly

Melb magazine, March 2014 edition

The issue of inappropriate behavior by tourists has attracted a lot of media attention lately. The focus has mostly been on tourists from countries whose citizens have had little prior experience with international travel. It’s these tourists who are most likely to offend people – both residents and tourists alike – in the countries they visit. In Thailand for example, there have been many complaints concerning tourists from Russia (esp. in Pattaya) and China (esp. in Chiang Mai).

The sort of behaviour that upsets locals ranges from the mildly annoying through to acts that are dangerous and illegal. These include spitting in the street, shouting, public urination, ignoring road rules, and pushing in front of people in queues. Bad behaviour by tourists can cause considerable social friction and dissipate the welcoming nature of local people that is such a huge draw-card for any destination. It is of small consolation for local residents that behavior like this is usually only a product of ignorance of foreign culture and laws, rather than willful disregard or a deliberate intention to upset.

So, just whose responsibility is it to ensure that tourists understand what behavior is acceptable and what is not? Should it be the Thai government? The government of the tourists’ country of origin? The airlines and travel industry? The tourists themselves? It should be a shared responsibility, but all too often little is done by anyone. I suspect this is partly because of the fear of being branded unwelcoming or even racist. It was pleasing to see the Chinese government recently step in and issue guidelines for the behavior of its citizens travelling abroad (see http://www.news.com.au/travel/world-travel/china-issues-civilised-behaviour-guide-for-tourists/story-e6frfqai-1226653400934). Now if only other governments and major tourism organisations would follow suit, ideally by way of a coordinated campaign across the entire region.

This issue is discussed further in the following articles:

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/opinion/aussie-tourists-advised-to-pack-manners-and-respect/story-e6frfifo-1225714489128

 http://www.smh.com.au/travel/traveller-tips/tourists-behaving-badly-how-to-avoid-being-a-travel-jerk-20120314-1v187.html

 http://www.economist.com/blogs/analects/2013/11/chinese-tourists

http://www.news.com.au/travel/travel-updates/chinese-tourists-uncivilised-says-top-official/story-e6frfq80-1226645691691