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Tuesday, 15 June 2004
Page: 30391

Ms LIVERMORE (8:32 PM) —If ever we needed more proof in this country that this government is more interested in winning elections than coming up with solutions to the real problems facing families as they go about their everyday lives and work towards a positive future then this latest budget is exhibit A. This budget sets out the government's plans to spend $52 billion of taxpayers' money, and yet it offers no hope of tax relief to those average income earners bringing home less than $52,000 per year—the vast majority of Australians and certainly most of the people in my electorate of Capricornia. It still offers no hope to those families caught in the family payment debt trap that the system will be fixed to work for them rather than against them. And, while the people in my electorate largely miss out on tax relief, we are also bearing the burden of this government's failure to invest in essential services and social infrastructure.

People in my electorate are paying more tax than ever before under this government; yet, due to the continued decline of public investment in health and education, they are also spending more of their income just to get through the week—more to see a doctor and more to get their kids educated. Not surprisingly, they are asking themselves why the highest taxing government in Australia's history cannot deliver on the services that make a difference to people's everyday lives and their dreams for their family's future. They might ask that question but they will not get any answers, because quite clearly the Prime Minister and his government stopped listening to the community a long time ago. That much was obvious in the budget. The budget did not have any real answers or solutions, just quick fixes and bribes.

Speaking of quick fixes and bribes, one of the areas that I would like to concentrate on in this debate is the issue of the family tax benefit scheme. This has been hailed by the government as one of the features of its budget, and I am sure we will hear even more about its merits as the government's pre-election taxpayer funded advertising splurge shifts into top gear in the coming weeks. The Treasurer's announcement of increased payments to families through the family tax benefit scheme is purportedly about making good on the Prime Minister's long-awaited family package—the famous barbecue stopper of balancing work and family commitments. In reality, though, it is nothing but a cheap political trick designed to buy the government's way out of trouble, and it is a trick with strings attached that will see the promised benefits clawed back after the election.

Back in May there we were, along with those millions of Australian families who live with the daily juggling act of work and family responsibilities, waiting on budget night to see what the government would offer to relieve the pressure on those families. After years of build-up by the Prime Minister and knowing how crucial this policy area is in addressing the day-to-day concerns of families, we on the Labor side of the House were really expecting a comprehensive package that would demonstrate that the government is finally in touch with the lives of working families. However, instead of a meaningful package of work and family initiatives, the government is simply throwing money into a failed system, ignoring yet again the debt trap that it has created for millions of families over the past four years.

Of course, on budget night we heard only the good bits. The Treasurer proudly announced an extra $600 for each child in those families receiving family tax benefit to be paid immediately, and a further $600 to be paid later in the year. But what is the true picture for families coming out of that announcement? You certainly did not find out from the government. The government's figures, published all over the country the day after the budget, were shown by Labor to be totally false and misleading. The government's tables counted in money that was not going to eventuate for many families and made it look like it would arrive in their pockets each fortnight when, in fact, it is a once-a-year payment and only for those families lucky enough to escape a Centrelink debt. That is the big catch and something that the Treasurer left out of his budget speech. The second $600 payment referred to in the budget will be paid to families only following a reconciliation of family payments made up to 30 June 2004. In other words, for a large proportion of families who are counting on that second $600, the government will get its chop first to pay off family payment debts and the families who need it will not see a cent of that money.

The government clearly hopes that, by paying off families with that extra $600, it can slip through yet another election without getting in and doing the real work of fixing the family payment debt shambles. Once again, the government has resorted to its tired and cynical trick of spending its way out of trouble rather than fixing problems that it has created. After all, as long as John Howard gets another stint in the Lodge, why should he care about the stress that families are under as they try to live with the constant threat of overpayments and debts owed to Centrelink, thanks to a failed system that is completely out of touch with the way families live today?

The government certainly cannot pretend that it does not know about these problems. This mess has gone on since the government introduced its family tax benefit system as part of the GST arrangements. In fact, in the lead-up to the last election in 2001, the government came up with another scheme to save its political hide when it forgave family payment debts up to a level of $1,000 per family. The election came and went and three years later families are still being hit with debts because of the government's stubborn refusal to fix the system so that it is more realistic and responsive to the situations in which families find themselves in today's flexible labour market.

The current system of family payments is not working for thousands of families and the government knows it. How could it not know when one-third of all families in receipt of family payments find themselves in debt to Centrelink at the end of the year when their payments are reconciled against their earnings? One-third of families receive a debt notice and for those families the average debt is around $900. Those figures prove that this is a mean and tricky budget from a mean and tricky government. This government hopes that people will pocket the first $600 in June, bank on the second $600 and, in the meantime, cast their vote for the coalition before reality sets in and the money gets swallowed up in Centrelink debts.

The opposition discovered in Senate estimates that the government certainly is not taking any chances and has everything perfectly choreographed for its family payment budget bribe. It was revealed in estimates that at least 150,000 families will not know their situation with regard to their potential debt to Centrelink until after September—in other words, until after the election. So up to 150,000 Australian families who take up the government's suggestion and lodge early tax returns will not be advised of family benefit debts or be asked to repay them until after September. Those people will go to the ballot box at the election having been strung along by this government's promise of an extra $600 per child when, in fact, unbeknownst to them, the government could very well be preparing to claw that money right back again.

When the government is not busy dreaming up ways to hide the true extent of its family payments shambles, it is out there trying to demonise and blame the recipients of the family tax benefits for the mess it has created and repeatedly failed to fix. The government would have us believe that the people being hit with debt notices as a result of overpayments by Centrelink are deliberately ripping off the government and it is somehow their fault that the family tax benefits system has generated 1.639 million overpayments, totalling $1.417 billion, since it was introduced three years ago.

According to figures provided to Labor's shadow minister for family and community services, around 57 per cent of all payments made to families in that time have been incorrect. Given those shameful figures, how plausible is it for the government to continue to blame the overwhelming majority of mothers and fathers in Australia who are simply doing their best to cooperate with a flawed system? I would like to take this opportunity to tell the chamber about a couple of families in my electorate who have found themselves in just that situation of trying to do the right thing but getting trapped by the family payments system and caught with a debt that sends their carefully balanced family budget into chaos. The situation of the first family is a serious indictment of this government on two counts: the family payment debt trap and the Howard government's disgraceful neglect of dental health programs in this country since it took the axe to the Commonwealth dental health scheme in 1996. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

Main Committee adjourned at 8.43 p.m.