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Wednesday, 24 March 2004
Page: 21798

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (1:07 PM) —I wish to speak on two matters in this debate of matters of public interest. Firstly, I would like to draw the Senate's attention and the public's attention to a package of measures released today by an alliance of community organisations called Services First. It goes to what I believe is one of the most crucial public policy debates leading up to the election. It relates to what we do with budget surplus, the tax system and that continual and very important balancing act between revenue, income tax, other tax measures and expenditure on services. The group is putting forward the simple message of `services first before tax cuts'. The message in the debate about tax cuts—whether the public deserve any changes, whether we should be returning bracket creep or whether there should be changes to the income tax threshold—is: let us not forget that every dollar that is forgone through tax cuts to the public is a dollar that can no longer be spent on services. Plenty of surveys show that a lot of people would be more willing to forgo money being put back in their pocket through tax cuts if they were assured that that extra money would instead be invested in better services for them and the community.

It is significant that the Services First alliance that launched the package includes a wide range of organisations. It includes ACOSS—an umbrella organisation for community service organisations—Aged and Community Services Australia, schools and higher education organisations, the Federation of Disability Organisations, health organisations, the National Shelter in the important and often forgotten area of housing, and ATSIC in the also, unfortunately, often forgotten area of Indigenous assistance. Currently, ATSIC is having lots of difficulties and wrestles with the government. That is occupying a lot of the political focus. Let us not forget that the core purpose of ATSIC and the core commitment of the people who are involved in ATSIC and the commissioners is still to provide the assistance that is needed for Indigenous Australians. The fact remains, and it should not be forgotten in any debates about the future directions for service delivery for Indigenous people, that Australia's Aboriginal people live, on average, 20 years less than non-Indigenous people. The debate we are having concerning Mr Costello's `work till you drop' and whether we should increase the retirement age to above 65 does not mean much to Indigenous people because the majority of them do not live that long, and that is a disgrace. Twenty years less than average life expectancy is a disgrace, and that will not be addressed through tax cuts.

I am not saying that tax cuts should be ruled out; what I am doing is drawing attention to the package of measures and the statements released today simply to ensure that we do not forget this part of the debate. Providing that extra assistance for health, schools, universities and housing will go a lot further towards addressing disadvantage and inequality in the community. As was also mentioned today by the groups in Services First, the gap between the well-off and the not so well-off or disadvantaged Australians has widened in the last decade. That is a simple fact. Part of it is to do with incomes and part of it is to do with affordability and accessibility of services.

The Senate Community Affairs References Committee spent some time in recent months examining poverty in its inquiry. Poverty is not just about how much money you have in your pocket; poverty is about whether you can access affordable housing, affordable health care and education. One problem with the growing inequality is that the less well-off not only have less money by definition but are less able to access those services because they need money to access them. That is why the Democrats have worked so hard on issues such as those in the Medicare debate, trying to cut through the politics to keep the core strength of Medicare there and to continue to make incremental improvements to move things in the right direction. Frankly, that is why it is such a tragedy that the Medicare legislation that went through this place, with the help of the Independent senators, has undermined the core focus of Medicare and refused to grasp the opportunity of setting targets for improved bulk-billing for GPs. There are plenty more issues within the health debate, not just in Medicare—let alone in other areas—that will continue to be debated. The Democrats will certainly continue with those through to the election.

I commend the groups for making this statement of concern. Health and education are top of the list when you look at community concerns. Housing is not as high on the list as I think it should be, and it certainly needs to be debated more often than it is. But there is now wide acknowledgment that unaffordability of housing is a major problem for a growing number of Australians. There is a role there for the federal government to play that currently they are refusing to play. Even Allan Fels earlier this week was highlighting the problem of unaffordability of housing for many people. Other reports highlight that the amount of money that has been invested in public, social and community housing has been declining over recent years. The availability of public housing and social housing stock has declined. That is an indictment on state governments as well as the federal government. The fact is that community housing and public housing are the most efficient ways to deliver affordable housing through use of public money, and no less a body than the Productivity Commission—or its forerunner, the Industry Commission—found that was the case some years ago. The amount of money paid out in rent assistance through Centrelink payments is more than what goes into public housing around the country. The amount of money that went into the first home owners grant was around the same as the total amount of money that went into public housing around the country.

We are spending huge amounts in areas such as the first home owners grant and rent assistance, which are actually less efficient than the area of public housing. Yet the amount of investment is declining in the public housing area rather than in the other areas. I do not want to be misrepresented as saying that we should cut out rent assistance or that we should cut out the first home owners grant, but we do need to look at how we can provide the best value for the amount of money spent. Also what I believe is important about the statement made today is the recognition of the value of services, not just by endlessly pouring more money into them but also by state and federal governments focusing on and giving policy attention and priority to improving services and getting better value for the money spent.

There is no doubt that at the state level it is not just a matter of the underfunding of hospitals. State governments make a lot of play about not getting enough money from the federal government to fund their hospitals, and there is some credence in that—although, in my view, it is nowhere near as much as they make out. There is also plenty of credence in the fact that the value gained from the money provided is not as good as it should be, and state governments must bear responsibility for that.

In drawing attention to this statement I am not saying that the Democrats are signing up to every single word, but I am saying it is a valuable and important contribution to a debate that as much as possible we need to try to stick to the substance of, rather than just political shadow-boxing. As part of the tax debate that will undoubtedly flow as part of the federal budget and through to the next election, we need to make sure that it does not become just another old-fashioned, terrible and irresponsible tax cut option between the major parties. We need to recognise that this is all part of the one equation, and services is part of that equation. There is support in the community for properly funding services if those services will deliver for people in fundamental areas like housing, like health and like education. The Democrats support that aspect of the debate and will play a strong role to ensure that the debate is as broad as possible.

I also want to take this opportunity to speak briefly on the issue of the refugee intake. We had a welcome announcement yesterday from the federal government that the overall intake of refugees into Australia as part of our humanitarian program will increase from 4,000 a year to 6,000 a year. That is part of an overall increase of 1,000, from 12,000 up to 13,000, in the humanitarian program, of which the refugee program is a part. For many years the Democrats have been calling for an increase in our humanitarian program, which has been at about 12,000 for quite some time. So we certainly welcome this increase and, indeed, we will keep encouraging the government to go further.

Our overall migration intake of permanent arrivals has increased quite a lot in the last few years. There was a dip when the Howard government first came to office in 1996-97, and the intake has gone back up to what are very high levels by historical standards, I think—do not quote me on this but I think we now have about the third highest permanent net migration intake in our history. So the number is very high and, as we are taking that number of people as part of our overall permanent net migration intake, the part that deals with humanitarian entrants should increase proportionately.

The Democrats have been arguing for that for some time. Indeed, we believe that more priority should be given to our humanitarian program than has been the case. Obviously any increase is welcome, and the Democrats congratulate the government for that. It is such a tragedy that the government, at the very same time as increasing the humanitarian intake and the refugee program intake, still tries to keep scoring political points in relation to people who arrive unauthorised to seek protection in Australia. We heard at a press conference and saw in a press release and during question time yesterday the minister continue to run this outrageous line that somehow or other people who seek protection in Australia and who arrive unauthorised are less deserving than other refugees.

The refugee principle is about protection from persecution. It is not about who has the least money or anything like that. If you look at the origin of the refugee convention, which stemmed from the Second World War, the idea that some of the Jews fleeing Germany were more deserving than others based on who had less money is ridiculous and offensive, yet that is the inference if not the blatant statement repeatedly made by this government. The suggestion the minister made that the only reason the government can increase the intake is the success in putting up barriers and keeping out people who are trying to seek asylum in Australia is just wrong. It is the government's choice to increase its intake, and I support that very strongly. But it has nothing to do with how many arrive here seeking protection. It is to do with how many the government chooses to bring offshore, and to try to link those two is, frankly, irresponsible. It is not correct. The continual rhetorical action of this government of vilifying refugees who seek asylum in Australia by suggesting that they are somehow less deserving as justification for the immense suffering that has been put on them is a continuing problem. You can double the intake to 25,000, but if at the same time you continue to oppress, punish and severely harm people who seek asylum at our borders it will continue to be a problem, and it will continue to receive the criticism it deserves.

I mentioned yesterday, and I repeat again today, the story of a young Afghani man who has now been in the Port Hedland detention centre for five years for doing nothing other than seeking asylum. He was unsuccessful at the Refugee Review Tribunal, but his story in relation to where he was from in Afghanistan and that his father had been killed by the Taliban was accepted by the tribunal. They did not accept other things and they obviously did not accept that Australia had a protection obligation to him, but he is still seeking that protection. The fact is that, as part of trying to get that protection, he has been imprisoned for five years for committing no crime, and has not even been charged with a crime. That situation cannot be acceptable, regardless of how big our humanitarian program is.

So there is a big tick for a good thing, but it does not negate the continuing unacceptable actions by this government in doing things such as detaining this person for over five years. There are many others, some of whom have suffered enormously and who have basically had permanent psychological damage done to them as a result of our detention regime. We have the people on Nauru who should not be forgotten. They are still suffering, and the Democrats will not back away from continuing to ensure that somebody speaks on their behalf even while we support what the government has done by increasing the refugee intake. As I said, we encourage them to go further.