Oct 20

January 1 price rises and benefit cuts: what you need to know

Australians will awake on Sunday to a host of increased fees, changed regulations and reduced benefits. Photo: Dominic LorrimerThey say life can change in an instant.
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Never is that more true than when the clock strikes midnight on December 31.

Along with hangovers and dark circles under their eyes, Australians will awake on Sunday to a host of increased fees, charges, changed regulations and reduced benefits.

Get set to pay more and receive less.

Here’s everything you need to know:

Pensioners

A shake-up of the test that determines whether people are eligible to receive the age pension, the disability support pension and the carers pension will mean reduced payments for more than 230,000 pensioners and payments ceasing altogether for about 90,000 more. Pensioners affected by the change should have already received a letter from Centrelink.

Some pensioners – about 170,000 – will actually receive a pension boost, because the government is lifting the total value of assets – cash, shares, investment properties – pensioners can own before their pension rate is reduced from the full rate. The family home remains excluded, as always.

But many more will lose out under the changes thanks to an increase in the rate at which pension payments are reduced once assets exceed the threshold value. Currently, for every $1000 of assets a pensioner owns above the asset threshold, their fortnightly pension payment is reduced by $1.50. This will increase to $3 on January 1 – returning it to where it was before the Howard government made it more generous in 2006.

Dental care

Three million children who live in families that receive Family Tax Benefit Part A will, from January 1, have their entitlement to free dental services capped at $700 over two years, down from $1000 previously. Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley says only 30 per cent of children who are entitled to the payment actually use it, and the average claimed per patient is just $302. However, 8 per cent of children eligible for the subsidies are expected to be affected by the change – leaving about a quarter of a million kids worse off.

The new year also brings reduced funding for adult dental services, after the federal government announced just before Christmas that it would give the states just $107 million in funding each year for the next three years, down from $155 million this funding year. The Gillard government had originally pledged $391 million for the coming funding year.

The new year brings reduced funding for adult dental services. Photo: Quentin Jones

Minister Ley was unable to get the states to agree to her $1.7 billion, four-year, combined Child and Adult Public Dental Scheme and announced the reduced funding agreement just before Christmas instead. The Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association says public dental services will be “severely compromised” as a result of the funding cuts and estimates 338,000 Australians will lose access to public dental services as a result.

Prescription drugs

The new year will herald higher co-payments for prescription drugs. The co-payment per script will rise to $6.30 for concession cardholders (up from $6.20) and to $38.80 for general patients (up from $38.30). A 2014 Coalition plan to increase the general co-payment by another $5 remains on ice however, one of several “zombie” measures in the federal budget that have yet to pass through Parliament.

But it is older Australians and frequent prescription users who will suffer the most in the new year as their free drugs safety net resets.

“There’s two ways people will pay more for drugs from January 1,” a spokesman for the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, Greg Turnbull, said.

“First, there will be an increase in the co-payments, which increase each year with inflation. And second, when the clock strikes midnight on December 31, people who have been enjoying free prescriptions because they reached the safety net at some point during this year will start paying co-contributions again until they hit the safety net in 2017.”

Welfare crackdown

As part of the Coalition’s $6 billion omnibus savings bill, passed in September, people who have received welfare overpayments will start paying interest of 8 per cent on their debts from January 1, unless they are complying with a repayment plan.

People who owe money to Centrelink will also be able to be ordered not to leave the country until they pay, similar to arrangements in place to stop parents who skip child support payments from skipping the country.

January 1 also ushers in a host of new changes to welfare eligibility criteria, including that: Fringe benefits received from employers will now be included in the income test for family assistance and youth payments (unless your employer is a not-for-profit);Child support payments will now be included in the income test for youth allowance;Age pensioners who move into aged care and rent out their former home will now have this rental income included when determining their age pension payments;New recipients of the carers allowance will lose an ability to have their payments backdated.New migrants who arrive under the family reunions channel will now need to serve a two-year waiting period before they qualify for income support payments.Backpackers’ tax

The Turnbull government’s controversial backpackers’ tax will finally come into effect from January 1. People aged 18 to 30 who come to Australia as temporary working holidaymakers will start paying income tax of 15 cents from the first dollar they earn.

Previously, backpackers were taxed the same as Australian citizens, meaning they could earn up to $18,000 without paying tax. The Turnbull government’s May budget sought to align them to the tax treatment of non-residents, which is 32.5 cents from the first dollar they earn, but the government watered down the measure after a backlash from tourism and regional businesses.

Vocational education

Eradicating dodgy vocational educational providers is the aim of a revamped student loans scheme which comes into effect from January 1. The new VET Student Loans program will replace the old VET FEE-HELP scheme, under which loans increased from $26 million in 2009 to $2.9 billion last year as unscrupulous providers sought to sign up vulnerable students to courses of questionable value.

Students enrolling in vocational education institutions this year will need to double check with the Australian Skills Quality Authority that their institution remains an eligible provider, or they will be ineligible for a student loan this year. There will also be a new cap on loan amounts and stronger criteria for which courses are eligible.

The cost of a new passport will increase from January 1.

Passports

Bad luck for those who have booked holidays but not yet arranged their passports. From January 1, the cost of each new passport will increase by $20 for adults and $10 for children and seniors. The fee for priority processing of passport applications will increase by an even heftier $54.

Nannies pilot

Due to an overwhelming lack of uptake, the government’s pilot program to pay subsidies to families who employ private nannies will cease to accept new families from January 1. The government booked a saving of $170 million in its December mid-year budget update by winding back the number of places set aside and closing the scheme to new families from January 1.

Asthma drugs

Good news for an estimated 370 severe asthma sufferers who will benefit from the listing of a new medicine, Nucala, on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme from January 1. Previously, patients with this severe form of asthma would have to pay $21,000 each year to access the new treatment, which involves monthly injections. The listing will cost $25 million over four years.

Youth allowance

Every little bit helps. About 1 million recipients of Austudy, Youth Allowance, Carer Allowance and young recipients of the disability support pension will wake up to a few extra dollars a week thanks to the regular annual indexation of their payments.

Youth Allowance recipients will get between $2.40 and $5.70 extra a fortnight. Austudy recipients will get between $4.30 and $5.70 a fortnight. Payments increase with inflation, rather than the more generous measure of average wages growth which pensioners enjoy.

Opal fares will remain frozen until July. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Transport

Opal fares remain frozen until July, but the cost of some other trips will rise.

Tolls will increase between 1¢ and 8¢ for cars using the Hills M2 Motorway, M5 South-West Motorway, Westlink M7, Eastern Distributor, Cross City Tunnel and Lane Cove Tunnel.

An increase of between 4¢ and $1.89 will also apply to trucks using these roads, as part of the regular quarterly adjustment to tolls.

Trips on the privately contracted Manly Fast Ferry service will rise by around 10¢ per trip as part of an agreement for regular annual inflation increases.

The vehicle tax for light vehicles will rise by between $3 and $10, depending on weight and whether it is for private or business use. Other registration fees and charges remain the same.

Solar bonus scheme

The NSW Solar Bonus Scheme will end at midnight on December 31, meaning drastically reduced payments for solar panel owners.

The scheme was only supposed to attract 42,000 households, but 147,000 households ended up signing up for the scheme which earned them 60¢ or 20¢ for every kilowatt hour of power they supplied to the grid.

The new year will see these “feed in tariffs” earned by solar panel owners reduced to just 6¢ for AGL and EnergyAustralia customers, 10¢ for Origin customers and 12¢ from smaller players like Enova Energy.

Foreign property investors

The Baird government’s new Foreign Investor Land Tax Surcharge will come into force from January 1.

Foreign investors who own residential real estate in NSW will be slapped with a new and ongoing additional surcharge of 0.75 per cent of the unimproved value of their land, in addition to the usual land tax.

There will be no tax-free threshold, meaning if a property has an unimproved land value of $1 million, the foreign owner will, from January 1, pay a foreign investor surcharge of $7500 per year.

Land tax bills

There is some relief in sight for investment property owners, however, as land tax thresholds are increased from January 1. The threshold at which property investors must start paying land tax will increase from an unimproved land value of $482,000 to a value of $549,000. The premium threshold will increase from $2,947,000 to $3,357,000.

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Oct 20

Workshops to open up a new world

Craig Maynard lives in two worlds. Oneis filled with miscommunications and frustrations while the second is completely silent, but rich with meaning. He dreams of merging the two.
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Breaking down the language barriers: Craig Maynard with Pathfinders Ability Links manager Lynn Lennon and linker Brett Pischke.

Next year, Craig is inviting Inverell’s hearing community to learn to communicate with deaf people through free Australian Sign Language (Auslan) workshops at Inverell Accommodation Services.

“Australia is really backwards when it comes to sign language. It’s usually the last we’re taught. In America, it’s the first,” Craig said. He said any effort from hearing people to sign was deeply appreciated.

He remembered when a barista’s small gesture turned his bad day around.

“I was so depressed, I was so upset, and I had things going on in the background.I ordered what I wanted and she actually got what I actually ordered, and it was an amazing feat on its own, because usually people don’t hear what I say,” he said. When he thanked her, the barista signed the words ‘thank you’ to Craig.

“Well that was it. My day was good. Because someone actually took the effort to sign one sign for ‘thank you’, and it just snapped me out of my depression. Whatever was happening, it shifted. Because it’s a visual language for me,” he said.

He said any attempt from the hearing population to communicate through signs was deeply valued –even swear words during a traffic jam.

Craig’s dream is for Australia to follow in the footsteps of Martha’s Vineyard, an American island with a large deaf populationin which,at one time, everyone spoke in sign language.

“Only a quarter of them were deaf, but they all signed to each other. And so it was a natural thing for them to communicate. And it was great, because the guys on the lighthouse could say (signing) ‘Can you bring me some milk? I need a cup of tea’,” he said.

Craig pointed out that there many uses for signs for hearing people, including talking over distances, through windows and warning each other about sharks during scuba dives.

Local speech pathologist Lisa Foskey is excited to take part in the workshop. She uses a version of Auslan called key word signs to help many of her clients communicate.

“The key word sign uses only the key words as a sign, and it’s used as a spoken version of language rather than just signing,” Linda explained.

“Lots of the children and adults I work with who have difficulty communicating end up quite frustrated that people don’t understand what they’re saying,” she said.

“Any kind of gestural communication can be of great benefit to someone who has communication difficulties.”

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Oct 20

Centrelink rorts crackdown could hit regions harder

MEMBER for Bendigo Lisa Chesters believes Centrelink’s new automated debt recovery system could unfairly target people in regional areas due to poorer communication services.
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Over the Christmas period, she said she had been contacted by several welfare recipients in central Victoria who hadtheir payments incorrectly suspended by the new system, designed to crack down on welfare fraud.

Centrelink can now automatically cross check records with the Australian Taxation Office to detect overpayments, and sends letters requesting an explanation within three weeks.

It has raised $300 million in overpayments for the government following 169,000 reviews.

But Ms Chesters said it was a flawed system that failed to take into account a number of factors for those living in regional areas.

“Over the Christmas period I was contacted by several people who had their payments suspended. For most of them it appeared to be no fault of their own,” she said.

“Quite often people do not know they have to attend an appointment because appointment letters have not arrived before the scheduled appointment or a text message telling them to attend an appointment, they attend only to be told no appointment exists.

“Days later their payments are suspended for a ‘failure to attend’.

“It’s unfair to suspended a payment if you don’t know you have to attend an appointment.”

Several instances of incorrect recovery attempts have been reported in Australia over the Christmas period, including one woman who was informed she owed Centrelink $24,000.

The revelation led Labor to call for the system to be suspended.

Since September this year, more than 70 per cent of people who received a compliance letter have resolved the matter. Of those, 97.8 per cent did not need to provide supporting documentation.

Centrelink previously relied on manual checks to find those rorting the system.

The Coalition government has defended the automated approach, claiming there had only been 276 complaints out of the 169,000 reviews.

Human Services Minister AlanTudge said rorters will be tracked down.

The data matching techniques used to detect Centrelink fraud were also applied to people receiving other government payments, such as pensions and student payments.

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Oct 20

Fatigue driving warning

Tasmania Police are warning motorists not to drive whilst tired after a woman fell asleep and crashed on the Bass Highway.
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About 6am on Thursday morning a 37-year-old woman fell asleep and drove off the highway.

Tasmania Police Senior Sergeant Ian Mathewson said thewoman was travelling west on the Bass Highway at Doctors Rocks when she appeared to fall asleep before waking up and crashing.

Another woman in the car was taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

“This will be a timely warning to mention that fatigue is in fact one of the fatal five and if you are feeling tired to safely pull over and take a few minutes to have a rest,” Senior Sergeant Mathewson added.

Senior Sergeant Mathewson said serious fatigue could be similar to drink driving.

“You just lose all sense of reflex and being able to react,” he said.

“You’re not thinking clearly and your response is not quick either –which is very similar to alcohol.”

Senior Sergeant Mathewson encouraged drivers to take breaks “as often as you need” to stay alert.

“It’s not race to get to your destination,” he said.

His comments come on day seven of Operation Crossroads –a high-visibility blitz by police on the state’s roads.

During Operation Crossroads Tasmania Police have conducted 5092 random drug and alcohol tests in the Western District, which includes the West and North-West Coast.

Of those, police have issued infringement notices to 20 drink drivers, and 15 people have had positive oral fluid tests.

Earlier this week it was revealed the Western District had halfthe number of seatbelt offences across the state.

Drivers are reminded not to speed, wear a seatbelt or helmet, not to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and not to be distracted or drive while tired.

Operation Crossroads began on December 24 and it willrun until Sunday, January 1.

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Oct 20

New rating system to provide fairer contrast

CHANGE AFOOT: Pennington hits the line in Orange last week. Racing NSW is introducing a new rating system in 2017. Photo: JUDE KEOGHCountry horses will be given a helping hand when competing in the city as Racing NSW recently announced the upcoming introduction of a new secondary rating.
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The secondary country benchmark will be brought in from January 16 and is designed to increase the competitiveness of country horses taking on metropolitan rivals.

Introduction of the new system was made to get a likely indication of a horse’s rating in the metropolitan area.

The reverse will also hold true, with metropolitan runners nominating in the country will begiven a country rating to provide a fairer indication of the relativity between sectors.

The benchmark system will also be undergoing some other minor changes, which include bringing down the rating of unplaced horses quicker and avoiding rapid rating rises.

Another change – already implemented – which couldassist travelling country runners is the introduction of an eight-kilogramweight spread in NSW metropolitan races.

The spread now seesa minimum weight of 53kgand a topweight of 61kg.

“There is no doubt that the greater spread of weights has worked in improving field sizes and the increase to a possible eight-kilogramspread will provide even greater opportunity for competitive racing in the Metropolitan area compared to the previously compressed weight scale” Racing NSW CEO Peter V’landyssaid.

The remaining major change coming into effect from Racing NSW is areduction of weights in non-feature races, if there is no horse on the minimum weight.

This means, for example,if the lowest weighted horse has been allocated 55kgin a metropolitan race it would be taken down to 53kgand if the topweight in that race was allocated 61kgthis would be taken down to 59kg.

All weights in such circumstances would be taken down at declaration of weights and again at acceptance time until there is a horse on the minimum weight.

Racing NSW general manager of industry and analysis, Scott Kennedy, said the changes will help connections better understand where their horse sits in the pecking order.

“Say you’ve got a horse that’s made it to a 73-75 rating in the country, a decent level. If the horse won a handful of races to get to that level he might have made 10 to 15 points,” he said.

“However, relative to a Sydney trained horse that number might be an unfair comparison and he would more likely be around say a 68. This country benchmark is to give a better indication of where country horses sit in comparison.”

Bathurst trainer Peter Stanley said the changes from Racing NSW are moreof what he deems a good run of adjustments.

“I think the city horses will get a bit more weight and it will help the bush horses get around,” he said.

“We’ve had a few changes since I’ve been training and you’ve got to go with the flow and cop it on the chin. They’ve been trying to improve country racing and improve prize money and I think it’s all been for the good of the industry.”

Following the introduction of the Country Championships Stanley said its been an exciting time to be a regional trainer.

“We’ve got $100,000 country races now, so if you’ve got a horse good enough to race it that then good luck to you,” he said.

“It’s all been good for country racing of late. Trainers now have a big incentive to race.”

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