Farmers face pension pain

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Jenne BrammerThe West Australian
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Older farmers needing to access the part age pension are being discriminated against in the Assets Test, prompting a WA-led national campaign against Federal MPs who refuse to show their support to have old and new laws repealed.

The campaign is being driven by Neil Bartholomaeus, former head of the WA public service and former chief executive of WorkSafe WA, who moved to Manjimup a decade ago to form a computer software business and farm marron.

Although Mr Bartholomaeus, 67, has no immediate need to access the age pension, he has established the Senior Farmers Group and is urging farmers to contact Federal Liberal and National MPs informing them they will be voted last on the ballot paper at the 2016 election unless they push for the repeal of laws within the Social Securities Act 1991 that discriminate against farmers.

Mr Bartholomaeus said it was unfair that while the Assets Test for the age pension excluded the family home in cities and towns, a farm home on a single title was not treated the same.

Instead, for farming properties, only the home and two hectares of land is excluded from the Assets Test and the rest of the farmland on the same title is included.

The only exception is if farmers have lived continuously on the property for 20 years and can demonstrate it is productive, in which case their land will be excluded from the Assets Test.

Mr Bartholomaeus said this was discriminatory and all farmland on the same title as the family home should be excluded.

"Farmland should only be included in the Assets Test if it were practical to sell the asset and convert it to cash to pay for food and household bills, before accessing the age pension," he said.

The issue is exacerbated because from January 1, 2017, the upper limit to receive a part pension and the associated benefits will decrease from $1,151,500 to $823,000 for couples (and from $775,500 to $547,000 for single people, as announced in the Federal Budget back in May.

Mr Bartholomaeus said this lower threshold would exclude even more farmers, typically reducing their part pensions from about $15,000 to $2000 a year.

He said the Turnbull Government recently rejected a Productivity Commission recommendation to include the family home in the Assets Test, but it was disappointing it would continue with changes to the threshold and was not reviewing the impact on farmers in light of these circumstances.

As part of his lobbying, Mr Bartholomaeus has written to Pearce MHR Christian Porter, the recently appointed Social Services Minister, to highlight the issue.

However, Mr Porter said in a letter to the Senior Farmers Group that treating a farm home on a single title as the same as a home in cities and towns would substantially increase age pension outlays.

In the letter, he said treating a farm home on a single title as the same as a home in cities and towns would also remove the incentive for pensioners to make productive use of their land, and enable lifestyle farmers to invest funds in land that produced little or no income.

"This would reduce the availability of agricultural land, leading to increased upward pressure on the value of land for productive purposes," Mr Porter wrote.

Mr Bartholomaeus said Mr Porter was ignoring thousands of farmers in his Pearce electorate, who were being discriminated against under the assets test.

"Mr Porter and the Turnbull Government are ignoring farmers while pandering to electors in cities and towns," he said.

Mr Bartholomaeus said since starting his campaign, he had received hundreds of calls and emails from frustrated farmers from all over Australia.

Mr Bartholomaeus said he was surprised farm lobby groups such as the National Farmers Federation, WA Farmers and Pastoralists and Graziers Association were not lobbying the same cause but planned to engage with them in the near future as part of his campaign.

ABS Census data shows in 2011 around 23 per cent of famers were aged 65 years or over, compared with just 3 per cent of people in other occupations.

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