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Monday, 2 June 2003
Page: 15626

Ms LIVERMORE (4:52 PM) —I would like to use this debate today to speak up for the increasing number of Australians who are finding life more and more difficult, particularly those bringing up our nation's children. Every new set of statistics you read tells you that inequality is growing in this country. Whether you are talking about absolute income figures or relative positions, the gap between the rich and the rest of the community has deepened and widened in recent years, and the Howard government seems more than happy to let it keep drifting. The figures are mind-boggling. If you are doing well in this country, you are doing exceptionally well.

The annual incomes of the top five per cent of earners in Australia are roughly equivalent to those of the entire bottom 40 per cent. The wealthiest five per cent of Australians have enjoyed a 28 per cent jump in their earnings over the past five years—an increase of over $31,000 a year—yet this government has the gall to walk into the Industrial Relations Commission each and every year and oppose a wage rise for the lowest paid workers in this country. High-income earners are doing all right out of this government; they get their private health insurance rebate, millions of dollars for elite category 1 schools and the baby bonus. If you are a seriously wealthy but failed executive, you get a 30 per cent subsidy on your golden handshake. You have to hand it to the Howard government: they look after their own. Meanwhile, those on the wrong side of the divide, those on minimum or even average wages, the unemployed and the disabled, see their chances of a decent life, let alone their dreams of a better life, disappear as the services they rely on—state schools, public hospitals, bulk-billing doctors and employment services—fall apart under a government that does not know about hardship and does not care.

I believe that we are at a crossroads in our country's development. We have to ask ourselves: do we want to pay lip service to the principle of egalitarianism that has defined our nation up until now or will we commit to making fairness and equality of opportunity the birthright of every Australian in a meaningful and tangible way? Clearly John Howard and his ministers are not asking those questions. If they were, surely we would have seen some action by now to address the growing levels of financial hardship and inequality in our community that threaten the stability and cohesiveness of Australian society. You have to ask yourself: what are they waiting for? How bad do things have to get? It is not like the evidence of what this is doing to families in our community is hard to find.

I will help the government out with some statistics that show it is no accident that people feel they are being left behind. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are now 1.2 million salary earning households suffering financial stress. Eighty-seven per cent of the additional jobs created in the 1990s paid less than $500 per week. Currently, 28.6 per cent of Australian households earn under $500 a week. There are 800,000 children growing up in families where neither parent has a job. Nearly one-third of our work force are casual employees. Behind those statistics are real stories, real lives and real people who are being denied the opportunity to make the most of their lives and the lives of their children. As their representatives in the federal parliament we are not just along for the ride as this country plots its course. We have to be prepared to take a certain measure of responsibility for every kid who could not afford to go on a school excursion today and for every parent who had to make a choice between taking their child to a doctor and buying them school books. Make no mistake—that is what is happening in households every day.

In its submission to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into poverty in Australia, the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union quoted figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Household Expenditure Survey. They paint a picture of working families living on a knife edge: only one medical emergency or broken-down car away from debt and despair. One in five working Australians cannot go out once a fortnight; over a quarter of Australians cannot have a week's holiday away from home once a year. In any one year, 30,000 low-income working families go without meals and one-fifth cannot raise $2,000 for an emergency. I will give the House an illustration from the LHMWU's submission that describes what that means for a family—the stress that comes from relentless financial pressure and the disappointment of not being able to realise the dreams that you have for your kids. Maria is a 30-year-old married mother of one son. She earns $487 per week after tax working in the hospitality industry. Her husband is employed casually and their incomes support Maria's pensioner mother. The three generations of the family share a two-bedroom flat. In her testimony to the Industrial Relations Commission, Maria said:

We would love to buy a house for Martin to have a backyard and if we have any other children. However, based on our current incomes and the fact that my husband is not in permanent employment, neither of these are likely to happen.

I would like to get private health insurance but just can't afford it. My teeth need to be fixed but I am scared to go to the dentist in case it costs a lot of money.

We try to go on holidays at Christmas time each year but did not go last year because of my husband's redundancy and now being casual he doesn't receive any holiday pay.

I do not save enough money to save anything for emergencies. Each fortnight I go to a loan company who will cash a cheque before pay day. By the time I receive my pay it is already half spent. This is a vicious circle I can't break.

The failure of the Howard government to understand the daily struggle just to get by that so many people in our community experience is shameful. In fact, it is more than shameful; it is criminal. The hardship being experienced by so many Australians is not the result of carelessness or neglect on the part of this government; it is the direct and inevitable result of this government's policies—policies that have seen an explosion in low-paid, casual and short-term jobs and that at the same time have eroded universal services, such as health and education, that used to provide Australians with security, opportunity and dignity regardless of their income.

This speech came about as a result of a conversation I had with a woman who lives in Yeppoon in my electorate. I will just call her Sharon. Sharon came to tell me about her family's circumstances and the struggle they have to just keep their heads above water. Her husband works full time and earns $420 per week. He would like to do some overtime, but that would make their position worse in terms of tax and Centrelink payments. Sharon has a casual job in the hospitality industry, but it is costing them too much to run two cars so they are faced with the dilemma of selling Sharon's car. Of course, then they have to do without her income.

With teenage children, food and school expenses take up much of the family's budget, so clothes come from St Vincent de Paul or they just do without. There is no money for holidays or treats, and the cost of their children's ambitions to go to uni is just too daunting for her to think about. Sharon said to me, `We are trying to do the right thing, but we are just getting nowhere.' Sharon wants to know that someone understands what her family is going through, that someone is listening and that there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

The Labor Party are giving this issue the attention it deserves. We are trying to make the living standards of Australian families a priority for whoever governs this country. We have initiated the Senate's inquiry into poverty and financial hardship that is right now exposing what life is really like for working families and the unemployed in our community. It is a long way from the relaxed and comfortable vision that the Prime Minister promised seven years ago and it condemns his government's failure to provide support for families in the crucial areas of job security, health, education, housing affordability and savings.

That support will come from the kinds of initiatives that the Australian Labor Party is developing—things like our plan to restore bulk-billing, matched savings accounts, income tax credits that are properly integrated with the social security system so that people are rewarded for work and not penalised, and, of course, our ongoing commitment to the living wage. In his recent budget speech, the Treasurer committed $100 million to the job of rebuilding the country of Iraq. That might be the government's priority, but we in the Labor Party are firmly focused on the job of rebuilding a fair and just Australia.