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Thursday, 13 May 2004
Page: 23228


Senator NETTLE (11:23 AM) —In rising to speak to the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (More Help for Families—Increased Payments) Bill 2004 and the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (More Help for Families—One-off Payments) Bill 2004, I want to mention the way in which they were rushed into the parliament. The government gagged debate on these bills yesterday in the House of Representatives after debate had just begun. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs snuck these bills into the House of Representatives without notice on Tuesday night following the budget statement and the government is attempting to push them through both houses of parliament in just two days. It is very odd, given that this government has done nothing to address the enormous levels of stress it has caused families in Australia. It has lumped them with enormous debt for years and then, with the whiff of an election in the air, it is rushing to hand out lump sum payments to make up for the neglect and dismissal of Australian families. The government could have introduced this legislation at any time. It is not as if it did not know about the financial problems that its current system has caused thousands of families in this country.

Legislation needs proper and detailed consideration. Community groups need time to scrutinise this legislation to identify whether the bills inadvertently create any new poverty traps. It is clear that the package introduced with these bills is a cynical election stunt, an insult to Australian people who the government believes will not recognise this budget for what it is: a blatant attempt to buy votes in what is set to be a tight election. Certainly the comments that I have been reading today in the letters to newspapers show that Australians are not the dummies the government is expecting them to be. Australians have identified this for the election stunt that it is and for the vote buying exercise that it is.

The government is trying to sell its measures as the `largest package of assistance for families ever', and this is true. The package costs $19.2 billion over five years. It provides three payments. The first one-off payment, of $600 per child, will be paid to families who receive family tax benefit A. The second one-off payment, of $1,000, will go to recipients of the carer payment. The third one-off payment will go to recipients of the carer allowance and will be $600 for each eligible carer. It is not surprising that this government is trying to look generous right now, given the way it has squeezed families throughout the country during its term and given the way it will be happy to continue to squeeze families if it wins the election.

The Greens are obviously not opposed to one-off payments to families and carers. However, we are cynical of the effect that one-off payments can have on struggling families and carers who have ongoing financial challenges. The Greens believe that one-off payments do not represent a genuine commitment on the part of this government to help families in need. The government could assist families by establishing a paid parental leave scheme and if it were genuine this is what it would do. The government could assist the long-term needs of Australian families by investing in public services, by funding child-care places appropriately. It could assist by reversing the neglect of our public services like health and education. It could assist by fixing up the problems in the family tax benefit payment system that result in the family tax benefit debts that families face through no fault of their own. But the government has lost this opportunity and instead is attempting to bribe families with a short-term injection of cash that will provide no lasting relief for families.

The government has failed to deliver the much needed and much called for national paid maternity scheme. The maternity payment that is in this budget is not a maternity leave scheme; it is simply a welfare payment. The point of maternity leave is that a woman is able to maintain her attachment to the work force, receive income for the period of time she is looking after and bonding with her child, and then return to the work force. Unless a scheme ensures a continuing attachment to the work force, Australian women's rights to engage in paid work will continue to be restricted. The government's maternity payment does not ensure a mother's right to return to work, nor does it cover the 16 weeks off work that the World Health Organisation recommends.

In addition, as the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner has said, a lump sum payment with no requirement to stay out of work means that, for some women, pressure from their employers or financial circumstances will force them to return to work less than 14 weeks after the birth of their child. It is good that the government has finally recognised that the baby bonus was a dud, but it is disappointing that it did not decide to introduce a national paid maternity leave scheme. The Australian Labor Party lowered the bar on this by announcing their own form of maternity payment, rather than a paid maternity leave scheme, some weeks ago. That allowed the government to simply come in and introduce a maternity payment rather than a leave scheme, as that was what Labor had done.

The Greens have developed a paid parental leave scheme that will deliver replacement income to 75 per cent of women for 18 weeks, with a further 34 weeks of unpaid leave, a right to return to work part time and to share the leave period with a partner. This scheme can be funded by redirecting the baby bonus, which the government itself has abandoned in this budget. Australia can afford a scheme of this kind and Australian women deserve it. Until the government provides practical assistance of this kind to families it has no credibility in claiming to support families and women wanting to return to work after the birth of their child. The Greens will be moving a second reading amendment to the increased payments bill calling on the government to introduce a national paid parental leave scheme.

Unmet demand for child care, high fees, and pay levels as low as $12 an hour for child-care workers are major problems the Howard government has failed to address. The drive for private child care will only exacerbate these problems. The Greens welcome the government's provision of more child-care places in this budget, but the places that are provided meet only a quarter of the unmet demand for child-care places.

The long overdue extension to carer allowance is welcome, but it is difficult to see how a one-off payment of either $1,000 or $600 just prior to an election is anything more than attempted election bribery. If carers are so deserving, in the Treasurer's own words, this payment should be ongoing, rather than just one-off. Sara Trad, who after a spinal injury has been confined to a wheelchair and has her daughter as her primary carer, commented in today's Sydney Morning Herald that she believes the Prime Minister is simply trying to buy votes.

The government has belatedly recognised the design flaw in its family payments system which causes one in three families to have a debt each year. The flaw has not been addressed—a $600 payment will not remove the inherent flaw in a system that is creating these debts for families. The budget has missed an opportunity to help people genuinely in need in this country and has been criticised by welfare groups and other advocates for disadvantaged communities in Australia. High-income earners on more than $1,000 a week gain tax cuts of over $21 a week at a cost of $1.9 billion whilst those on low incomes but higher tax levels, unemployed people, gain nothing and still face paying 70c in the dollar on casual earnings through taxation.

There is little equity in this vote targeted, economically irresponsible budget. Once again the government has passed over the opportunity to use a significant surplus to invest in public services. At the same time, single people and families with no children miss out altogether. Young people in particular get nothing from this budget. Few young people earn enough to benefit from the government's tax cuts for the rich. Young people without children get absolutely nothing. The government has again missed the opportunity to extend rent assistance to Austudy recipients, a small cost for the government that would make a big difference to student poverty in this country. At the same time, the government's higher education reforms mean that students are paying more, either now or later, for their university opportunities.

The government claims to be helping families and those in need, but if it were genuine it would invest in public education—in schools and in tertiary education. It would also invest in ensuring that the bulk-billing rate stayed high so that families did not have to fork out huge sums of money when they take their children to the doctor. It would spend money on the environment so that our children would not have to pay for massive and unchecked environmental damage.

This government is not interested in these problems. It is simply interested in winning votes, and that is why we are hurriedly considering these bills today. The government has a record of giving more to the rich and failing to be generous to those who are in genuine need. This budget is no exception to that pattern. The two million eligible families who will receive the $600 lump sum payment before 30 June, at a cost of more than $2 billion, plus another $600 after they have handed in their tax return can clearly see—and they have already commented in the media today—that this is an election bribe being waved in front of them by the government. This government is trying to cover up problems that families have encountered with debt, but payments will not ease the stress that many families have endured due to the failed policy. This payment must be considered an apology as much as anything else.

The budget has been widely acknowledged as a desperate attempt by the government to buy votes. Billions of Australian taxpayer dollars are being utilised by the federal government to buy its way back into government. Whilst the Greens will not oppose more money for families and carers—in fact, we support it—we do object to the underlying strategy and the inability of the government to properly address ongoing policy failures. This pool of money being used to bribe Australians could have achieved a fully funded, free tertiary education system, more teachers and better resources for our public schools. It could have paid for the expansion of Medicare to cover dental services, a boost in bulk-billing and the establishment of new community health centres. These measures would have achieved true and lasting assistance for families.

Instead, schools are struggling, students are being slugged by higher fees, and doctors' fees are rising. Families will continue to suffer as a result of this government's policy failures. This is why the Greens see this budget as an abject failure. On behalf of the Australian Greens, I move the second reading amendment standing in my name:

At the end of the motion, add:

“but the Senate:

(a) condemns the Commonwealth Govern-ment for ensuring that Australia is one of only two Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries that does not have a national paid maternity leave scheme; and

(b) calls on the Commonwealth Govern-ment to implement immediately a national system of paid maternity leave”.