SuperGold Card: Do all baby boomers really need this gilded benefit?

by Virginia Larson / 18 July, 2017
Reasons to smile?

Even a millionaire will get their SuperGold Card in the mail after they turn 65. But is that a fair use of taxpayers' money?

Dave Slater, a reader from Golden Bay, emailed recently to tell me about his pleasant, taxpayer-assisted visit to Auckland. Dave had not long turned 65, and had his new SuperGold Card tucked in his wallet when he landed in the big city. It got quite a workout.

Dave ran me through the last day of his trip, beginning with a free bus ride from West Harbour to Britomart. From there, he strolled across to the ferry terminal and took a free cruise on the ferry to Waiheke Island. Then he was off on a free bus tour across the island to Onetangi, before heading back to the Matiatia ferry terminal for his free trip back to town. At Britomart, he took a free train ride to Onehunga, then a free bus to the airport. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, “I had to stump up for my flight back to Nelson.”

Back home, after totting up the value of his jolly, off-peak Auckland rambles, Dave checked out how much the SuperGold Card is costing the country. It’s not small change, even with the government’s efforts last year to put a five-year funding cap on the scheme. The SuperGold Card cost $18 million a year when it was introduced in 2008, That’s grown to $28 million and will have to rise – at a cost to taxpayers or ratepayers – as more and more baby boomers roll into retirement age.

It’s not means-tested, either. The discount card is sent automatically to everyone in New Zealand who qualifies for superannuation or a veteran’s pension. Among other perks, it offers cardholders funded travel on scheduled urban public transport between 9am and 3pm and after 6.30pm, Monday to Friday, also all day Saturday and Sunday – with the Government currently reimbursing regional councils for those “free” SuperGold fares on a per-trip basis.

Dave says he has no problem with needy pensioners getting free off-peak travel to keep in touch with family and their communities, but he’s now questioning why taxpayers should be funding his holiday jaunts.

“I don’t know why people with an income on or below the living wage should contribute a portion of their taxes to subsidise my generation. In general, I’d say my parents’ generation deserved a SuperGold Card. They lived through some very hard times – the Depression and, for many of them, two world wars. But not we baby boomers. My generation got a free university education… free hospital and ambulance services. We’re now lining up for knee, hip and shoulder replacements, cataract operations, modifications to our bathrooms, mobility scooters. Yes, we might be on a waiting list, but those lists would surely be shorter if public funds weren’t propping up our free travel.”

Dave decided to float his “scrap the universal SuperGold Card” argument past some other retirees. It floated with all the levitation of a lead balloon. “Regardless of their political allegiances, my fellow baby boomers’ mantra was clear. They all said, in one way or the other, ‘We deserve it.’ Even with increasing inequalities in Aotearoa, it seems current and future taxpayers owe us, with no regard to how much we’ve earned or accumulated in our working lives.”

Before Gareth Morgan launched The Opportunities Party (TOP), Act leader David Seymour was the only politician really taking on Grey Power and Winston Peters on the subject of pensioners’ free travel (the SuperGold Card was a legislative victory for NZ First). Seymour said it wasn’t the role of the government “to subsidise lunches on Waiheke, even though they are very nice”.

Looking at the NZTA site’s breakdown of SuperGold Card trips in Auckland, by transport mode, you’d have to conclude a surprising number of seniors are day-tripping about the islands of the Hauraki Gulf. I’m not sure this was quite what policy-makers meant when they said the card would “increase [seniors’] mobility and access to their community”. There’s probably a spike during Waiheke’s Wine and Food Festival.

The SuperGold Card is also a boon for pensioners on low incomes, of course. As well as the off-peak transport, it offers discounts on a range of goods and services such as hearing aids and heat pumps. Its universality means it’s cheap to administer, the same argument used, on a much grander scale, for our universal superannuation scheme. If you’re a New Zealander who meets the residency test, you’re entitled to the pension at 65. You could be a 65-year-old millionaire who works full-time – and still your super and your SuperGold Card will turn up. 

National and Act want to raise the age of entitlement. Other parties haven’t yet declared their pension policies; only TOP wants a welfare revolution – with its unconditional basic income (UBI) and commitment to rebalancing the welfare bill, especially the massive and ever-rising chunk that goes to superannuation.

While the debate continues, nervously, I wonder why wealthy New Zealanders, who don’t need a government pension at 65, couldn’t supply Work and Income with a legal document that diverts their super payment to a charity of their choice. And write “return to sender” on their SuperGold Card envelopes.          

This was published in the August 2017 issue of North & South.


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