Honest, hardworking Australians who have paid taxes are often treated with suspicion when they apply for a pension.
Honest, hardworking Australians who have paid taxes are often treated with suspicion when they apply for a pension.

Why Aussies like me may have to work until we drop

I'M definitely starting to feel my age.

Decades of riding (and falling off) horses, playing lots of netball and squash interspersed with some vicious, mixed indoor cricket in the '80s, seems to have taken a bit of a physical toll.

Add to that an impossibly full on 20-plus years of largely single parenting mostly on a shoe string and several years of juggled tertiary study aimed at replacing the string with something higher tensile (with limited success).

But overtaking all this are the years of working - 43 so far.

Why so many? Because back in the day, plenty left school at the end of Year 10 because we could. And we could because there was plenty of work to be had including unskilled and semi-skilled work, even of the white collar variety that could provide a handy career path.

I left at the end of Year 10 as: (a) I hated school; (b) I knew it all anyway; and (c) because I desperately wanted a horse and my parents wouldn't buy me one.

I quickly picked up work in a fast photo processing place (remember those?), that enabled me to buy a failed pacer who enjoyed bucking. But of course I loathed the job which required no brain power - remembering I considered myself to be hugely intelligent.

Luckily the need to advance my education penetrated this thick armour of wilful ignorance and I completed senior at night school, while being able to take advantage of the aforementioned white collar opportunities, landing a job in a university library which I enjoyed much more and which led to other openings.


The rest, as they say, is workplace history. But the reason for this rumination about 43 years and counting in almost continual full-time work is, these days, my thoughts are increasingly focused on my pathetic superannuation balance and the way we, who have put in a lifetime of work and taxpaying, are treated when we apply for a pension.

I'm among those born after January 1, 1957, who are already are not eligible for a pension until 67. And, if the Turnbull Government pursues its current policy to lift the age to 70 by 2035, that ground will shift under us before we hit 67.

ASIC's money smart planner calculated my "modest" retirement income that will comprise a small super pension with a part aged pension.

Life will feature "budget haircuts", cooking on a spirit burner by candle light (must restrict utility use!) and a biannual Maccas cheese burger as an eat out treat.

This plan assumes I can continue to earn at my current rate until 67 and that I'll have cleared my mortgage. Gulp.

In May the Association of Superannuation Funds, in a paper on women's economic security in retirement (there isn't much), summed up the inadequacy of superannuation overall saying the current levels of savings didn't provide economic security in retirement "for a significant proportion of the Australian population".

"In 2015-16 the median amount of superannuation for those aged 60 to 64 was $110,000 for men and $36,000 for women, well below the $545,000 (single) and $640,000 (couple) needed for a comfortable retirement according to the ASFA Retirement Schedule," the paper said.

So here I am, along with many of you, staring down the gun barrel of having to apply for an aged pension in the not too distant albeit likely shifting future.

I say "apply" but really it seems it's more a case of going cap in hand to Centrelink and steeling yourself to being treated like some sort of parasite while your life and finances are subjected to an extremely slow, forensic examination that stops just short of a cavity search to make sure you don't have a ten dollar bill stashed in your daks.

Expect to spend hours on the phone with Centrelink to get what you’re entitled to. (Pic: Mick Tsikas/AAP)
Expect to spend hours on the phone with Centrelink to get what you’re entitled to. (Pic: Mick Tsikas/AAP)

The Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association's Bronagh Power told a recent ABC AM segment on the many difficulties faced by pension applicants, that processing times of three to six months were being reported to them on a regular basis.

But, closer to home, my older sister and hubby were recently put through what my sister describes as a "humiliating, tumultuous wringer" involving 55 pages of forms containing hundreds of questions and requesting the provision up to 75 sets of documents.

She says she could spend up to two hours on hold on the phone trying to get through or, if she attended in person, being subjected to either rude or disinterested treatment, with the occasional helpful person, depending on the office.

The whole stressful process resulted, four long months later, in the approval of only a part pension for my brother-in-law because my sister had to wait until she was 65 years and six months and they exceeded the asset test while being in between selling their home and being able to buy another one. They were forced to live with family for six months to protect their small savings and modest super.

My sister says: "We were upfront with everything but sometimes I felt like I was somehow the lowest of the low. Not all of us are trying to rip off the system, you know. Most of us are just trying to do the right thing and access what we should be entitled to."

She's right. Yet these complaints about Centrelink delays, cumbersome processes and intimidating treatment have been around for years.

Here's the rub: the aged pension, while itself not much of a stipend, is nonetheless critical for a great many of us who have worked hard all our adult lives mostly for moderate wages and super accounts reflecting that.

I'm not sure why our government feels it's OK to operate from a default position of mistrust, suspicion and rude treatment of the citizenry to whom it owes its existence and is answerable. But it's way past time it stopped.

Margaret Wenham is a Courier-Mail columnist.

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