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Tuesday, 14 June 2005
Page: 139

Ms VAMVAKINOU (6:41 PM) —This is the fourth budget I have spoken to since coming into this place as the member for Calwell and it is by far and without doubt the most unfair and the most misdirected of all. This is a post-election budget that is framed within the context of a massive surplus at a time when skills shortages are jeopardising future work force participation, tax reform is desperately overdue and the overwhelming majority of Australian workers—some seven  million—will miss out on getting a bigger and fairer share of the tax cuts. These are workers who drive the prosperity that so many Australians enjoy. They work hard and many of them—in fact, most of them—have families and mortgages. They are doing it much tougher than the better off 10 per cent of Australians and they deserve a much bigger slice of the pie. They deserve it for their efforts and sacrifices, but unfortunately the government, and the Treasurer in particular, did not see fit to reward them adequately. There appears to be a preference for the wealthier side of town. It is on this basis that Labor is opposing the government’s tax cuts—because they are so blatantly unfair and misdirected.

My constituents are a part of the overwhelming 90 per cent of taxpayers who will miss out on an equitable and meaningful tax cut. For us in Calwell there are mixed realities and mixed feelings. The budget will be welcomed in some areas amongst the self-employed and the small group of high-income earners who will receive, no doubt, some very handsome benefits. However, these people comprise only a very small number whilst the vast majority of my constituents will not be doing so well.

Before I talk about some of the disadvantages this budget will impose on my constituents, I would like to make the point that there are some aspects of the budget which are positive and will be of benefit to the federal seat of Calwell. I refer particularly to the funding for the completion of the Craigieburn Bypass and other Hume Highway works, which we do welcome because we have a high accident rate on the Hume Highway. As recently as the weekend someone was seriously injured. We look forward to the completion of the Craigieburn Bypass.

Also, and I know I say this on behalf of South Pacific Tyres, we welcome the abolition of the three per cent tariff on imported goods not produced in Australia. This is an issue South Pacific Tyres raised with me two years ago and I raised it in the House last year. They are very pleased that finally the Treasurer delivered on his promise, which is about two or three years late, to remove this levy. South Pacific Tyres employ a lot of people in my electorate. It is always good to make sure large employers are viable and able to maintain that strong level of local employment.

In addition, the implementation of the government’s election commitments will be welcomed by Kangan Batman TAFE in Broadmeadows. However, as Kangan Batman’s chief executive, Ray Griffiths, has noted, it is disappointing that publicly funded TAFEs did not get much of a boost in direct funding for additional places. I am afraid I agree with Ray’s comments because the budget has not provided any general growth funding for additional TAFE places, especially when we learn that 40,000 people were turned away from TAFE institutions across Australia last year. This is a paradox when, as we all know, the debate around town at the moment is that Australia is experiencing a national skills crisis.

It appears absurd to me and to others that this government would not invest in increased education and training at our TAFE institutions. It does indicate that the government perhaps is not as serious about addressing the serious decline of apprenticeship completion rates which further add to the ongoing skills shortages that we are experiencing. When apprenticeship completion rates are so low at around 60 per cent, the Labor Party’s proposal for a trade completion bonus of $1,000 halfway through and another $1,000 at the completion of their apprenticeship is a very sensible way of acknowledging and addressing a problem that, rather than enhancing our skills development, actually adds further to the growing skills crisis.

Discussions with the executive director of the northern region’s business and development network, Mr Mick Butera, indicated that the tax cuts in this budget did not go far enough and that small business would suffer due to a lack of trainees in areas, particularly in the building industry. It appears the budget has not adequately addressed the immediate problem of the shortage of trainees. Small business needs trainees today rather than in six or seven years time. Given the government appears to be so committed to helping small business and talks about freeing small business from the so-called burden of unfair dismissal—the government promises that should small business be exempt from unfair dismissal then miraculously 40,000 jobs will be created—it is a paradox where small business will find these specially trained people it requires in order to create these jobs.

As I mentioned earlier, the few high-income earners in my electorate will obviously welcome these tax cuts. However, the majority of my constituents fall into the middle- and low-income levels, so I am afraid that all they have to look forward to is their $6 a week tax cut, which in reality will not even cover the rise in mortgage repayments from this year’s interest rate rises. So there is not much of a bonus for my constituents in the $6 a week tax cut. The government is the highest taxing government in Australia’s history, with the Treasurer collecting 70 per cent more tax since this government came to office. That is largely due to the impost of the GST, which leaves the average family paying $12,000 more in taxes than they were nine years ago. With this year’s considerable budget surplus, it seems pretty clear that Treasury is collecting more taxes than it needs and the commonsense approach is to return some of those taxes in a fair and equitable manner.

Labor has put forward a fairer tax package with a $12 a week tax cut for the majority of Australian workers. No doubt many of them are in my electorate, and they would benefit far more with a $12 a week tax cut than with the government’s $6 a week. The reality is that the government is squandering the budget surplus on skewed and unfair tax cuts which ignore 90 per cent of taxpayers, yet it seems to be putting some pretty unrealistic pressure on the disabled and sole parents in our community. I think that the budget targeting the most disadvantaged in our community and increasing the burdens that they already face is not the sign of a government that views people in a fair and equitable manner. I am particularly concerned about this because in my electorate of Calwell we have a large number of people who receive disability support and parenting payments and many of them have already written to me and called me to express their concerns about how the government’s Welfare to Work policy will affect them in the course of their daily lives.

We have over 6,000 disability support customers in Calwell and, as I indicated in this place last week, many of them would actually like to work. Contrary to the image that is being put out by many, including those in the government, people on disability support are not welfare bludgers and there are many who would actually like to work and improve their financial circumstances. In addition to improving their financial circumstances, working means that they would get a sense of purpose that comes from interacting with other people in the workplace, and they would also benefit from the opportunities that come their way when they are working and acquiring more skills.

The reality is that there are not any jobs for people with disabilities. I know that for a fact because I was a member of the Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations in the previous parliament which conducted a public inquiry and most of the evidence submitted to that committee indicated very strongly that employer attitudes towards people with disabilities was very negative and very discriminatory and that many barriers existed for the employment of people with disabilities. Those barriers include the obvious: negative stereotyping of people with a disability, discrimination and prejudice that comes with that stereotyping, inappropriate or inadequate assistance and support for those who are lucky to go into the work force, lack of information for employers to enable and encourage them to employ people with disabilities and lots of inappropriate jobs and inflexible working arrangements that militate against people with disabilities actually entering the work force.

The committee’s report also noted the evidence submitted by Disability Action Inc. that people with disabilities effectively need adequate support in order to access job training and employment opportunities. They need access to adequate personal assistance and care, to accommodation and to transport, and they need access to buildings and other infrastructure, to communication technologies and to the community. Presently those things are not available. We do not know how these people are actually going to be able to find jobs and then be able to sustain themselves in a working environment without all these additional supports. On the basis of my experience, I am not very optimistic that people with disabilities are actually going to be able to find meaningful employment.

It does concern me that the government does not appear to have considered these barriers adequately and does not appear to have provided some sort of mechanism to bridge the gap between welfare and work in a sustainable manner. Not only do many disabled people want to work but many currently do work, and this government should be focused on doing more to encourage employment of people with a disability. It is no good saying that they actually have to go and work; you have to encourage the employment sector to employ them.

An organisation in Calwell called Distinctive Options specialises in finding employment for people on disability support pensions. My daily contact with them tells me that they have incredible difficulties in placing people. For a while, my office took some of their clients as a way of providing some form of work experience. I particularly mention young Adam who, after working in my office for a period of about 12 months, eventually secured a job at the Melbourne Fire Brigade. This is a success story that, unfortunately, is the exception and not the rule. Today, Adam is still with the Melbourne Fire Brigade and doing very well. This is a perfect example where, if an employer has a will to employ people with a disability, they can be gainfully employed and make a very constructive contribution.

Earlier I mentioned the barriers to employment and said that discrimination is one of the most common and potent barriers to employment. If we are going to ask people with disabilities to go back into the work force, it is very important that we seriously address employer attitudes and practices towards people with disabilities, as well as their discriminatory practices, so that some results can be achieved. The focus should be on employers’ willingness and attitudes, if the government’s Welfare to Work policy is going to make any inroads or be successful in any meaningful way. We need to make the employer the issue for a change, rather than constantly speak in terms that impute guilt or unwillingness on the part of the disabled and make them the scapegoats, as they appear to be throughout this debate.

I also want to talk about Brite Industries in my electorate. Over the last 20 years they have led the way in giving disabled people opportunities to gain meaningful employment. They are a caring, dedicated employer who understand  the needs of their employees. That is the key to their success and commitment: they are compassionate people who understand the needs of their employees. Brite currently provide employment for 126 physically and intellectually disabled residents at their packaging factory and commercial nursery. It is employment arrangements such as these which should be further supported and encouraged by this government, rather than subjecting them to the increased burden of productivity assessments, as is currently occurring at Brite Industries. Unnecessary and unfair pressure is being placed on the management of Brite and, indeed, on those individuals employed there.

The budget does not appear to be doing anything to encourage long-term secure employment for people with disabilities. It does not appear to address employer attitudes and it does not seem to do anything substantial to reverse the decline in disability employment by the Commonwealth, which I understand has dropped from 5.6 per cent to 3.8 per cent. The Commonwealth itself is not leading by example. It is telling people with disabilities that they have to go out and get a job. As one of our major employers, it suffers from the same problem as other employers do—that is, an attitudinal problem. The Commonwealth could start to lead by example. Jobs need to be created that are appropriate and sustainable. If this government is to drastically restructure the lives of DSP recipients, it has a responsibility to make a positive impact, not a destructive one.

Similarly, the government’s changes to the parenting payment obligations concern me, as the member for Calwell, and my constituents—particularly given that there are over 7,000 parenting payment recipients in my electorate. The overwhelming number of these are sole parents and they are already undertaking the precious task of raising children in often very difficult and trying circumstances. Essentially, this policy of requiring sole parents—in this case mothers—to go back to work once their child turns six takes away choice. In a two-parent household, parents can choose whether they stay home; the mother or father can choose whether they stay home while the child is still at school. Sole parents no longer have that choice once the youngest child reaches six. This is rather ironic coming from a government that constantly argues about the importance and the value of individual choice. It seeks to deprive sole parents of choice. It seeks to deprive sole mums of the option of staying home and being with their children, particularly while they are at primary school. The government has not carefully thought out the ramifications of this for the children, the schools and the communities involved. I find it despicable that we are almost designing two classes of parents. It is despicable because those children who are in single-parent households are the ones most at risk. They are the ones who need, more than anything else, at least one parent to be at home with them and to support them through the critical years of early childhood education.

We do not know what the social ramifications for children in sole parent families will be. The reality too is that those sole parents who will be expected to return to work will require retraining. They are not going to walk into a job. No-one is going to employ them. They are going to have as much difficulty getting a job as people on disability are going to have because there are also many prejudices out there about employing a sole parent.

I worry about what will happen to sole parents when the government implements its industrial relations reform agenda. Exempting small business from unfair dismissal will put a very large number of the Australian working population in this position. Many of them will be sole parents and mothers. If they happen to be lucky enough to get a job selling whatever in a shop, or wherever it may be, and if they have to go home or they get called away once too often from their work to attend to their child who may have taken ill at school—it happens, I know; it happens with my children, it happens all the time—the employer might decide: ‘This worker is not acceptable because she has to keep leaving so I am going to give her the sack.’ So this strange convergence is taking place. (Time expired)