Theo Nomicos, President of the Association of Greek Elderly Citizen Clubs of Melbourne and Victoria, has hit back at claims that pensioners are committing welfare fraud on a massive scale – an allegation made recently by a former Reserve Bank official.
In a letter to Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens last month, former Reserve employee Peter Mair suggested that an average pensioner couple could be hoarding up to $50,000 in undeclared $50 and $100 notes, in a ruse to cheat the means-tested state pension.
“If putting it under the bed or in a cupboard means you qualify for the pensioner card, you get discounted council rates, discounted car registration, discounted phone rental – in percentage terms the return is enormous,” said Mr Mair.
The former official used comparisons between Australia and New Zealand to support his argument.
“In broad terms the average value of [bank] notes held by New Zealanders is about one third of the $2000 held by Australians – almost all of which by value is in the $50 and $100 denominations,” he wrote in his letter.
“An obvious explanation for the difference is means test-free age pensions in New Zealand.”
The content of Mair’s letter were made public last week in an article published by Fairfax Media under the title ‘The Grey Economy: How
Retirees Rort the Pension’.
Mair followed up his assertions by telling the ABC this week that such hoarding had been going on for two decades, and that in 1996, when the $100 bill was reissued as a plastic note, he observed the problem first-hand.
“That flushed out a lot of people and the experience was a bit frightening because they were – old people – were walking around with $10,000 in their handbag, looking for a bank to convert old paper ones into new plastic green ones,” said Mr Mair.
Theo Nomicos who heads an association representing 22,000 pensioners in 108 elderly citizen clubs across Victoria, told Neos Kosmos that Mr Mair’s allegations of widespread fraud were ridiculous.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing. Why hide the money, what for, to take it to the grave?
“It doesn’t stand. I’ve never heard of any pensioner keeping $50,000 under the carpet,” said Mr Nomicos.
“If someone has such an amount they can invest it and earn money.”
Mr Nomicos suggested that any serious enquiry asking where high-denomination notes were ending up would be better served by looking at the black market.
“Why do these people blame the elderly, it’s always the pensioners who are the trouble when most pensioners are struggling to live.
“They gave so much to this country. They worked hard and now near the end of their lives, they are blamed unfairly.”
The Council on the Ageing Australia (COTA) has also questioned the accuracy of Peter Mair’s claims.
COTA’s National Policy Manager Jo Root said the overwhelming majority of people on the pension struggled from one pension day to the next.
“The suggestion that most pensioners have a stash of $100 bills under the mattress is ludicrous and an insult to the thousands of older Australians who struggle to maintain a modest lifestyle on the pension,” said Ms Root.
“It’s an age-old stereotype that our older generations weasel away their dollars in teapots and pillow cases in an attempt to rort the system and frankly, it’s an offensive one.”
COTA has called on the Reserve Bank to distance itself from the claims of its former employee.
“As a society we should reward pensioners who contribute a lifetime of hard work and pay their taxes, not leave them in financial difficulty and accuse them of cheating.”