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Monday, 2 June 2003
Page: 15638


Mr RANDALL (5:41 PM) —It is on the record that one of the issues I am committed to is ensuring conditions for the working poor, particularly for such families in my electorate of Canning, continue to improve. By its very definition, the working poor need to work or have a job. These low-income workers should be able to keep more of their gross income for their families and themselves. It should not be eroded by a raft of taxes, charges and economic forces. A distinction needs to be made between the low-income workers of Australia and the welfare mindset. I will indicate how a Howard government has set out to reward these genuine workers and seekers of work.

As I have said before, there is nothing more upsetting than seeing men and women working long hours to provide a better quality of life and opportunities for their children, only to sadly observe they are making little headway. For those who genuinely want to work to improve their lot, the Howard government continues to introduce measures to ensure the working poor and low-income earners get to keep more of the money they earn so they can provide better opportunities for themselves and their families. I am proud to be part of a government which has introduced measures and policies so that low-income earners retain more of their earnings and have a better ability to use that retained income for their families. Importantly, these measures also provide greater incentive for lower income earners to work and to distance themselves from the welfare system.

There are many ways in which people who might fit into this category have, directly and indirectly, been assisted by seven years under the coalition government. During this time an extra 1.3 million new jobs have been created. A strong economy means more jobs, and responsible economic management by this government has helped reduce the unemployment rate to around six per cent—the lowest figure since Labor's peak of 10.9 per cent unemployment in December 1992 when Kim Beazley, now the member for Brand, was minister for employment—from the average unemployment rate of 9.2 per cent during Labor's last two terms in office.

By their own shadow minister's admission in a speech he gave on 18 March 2003 in the House, under Labor:

Unemployment is, without question, still one of the greatest policy challenges we face.

In contrast, the coalition government has turned this state of affairs around so that employment has increased to almost 9.6 million, the highest level ever, and the rate of job creation has been nearly three times as fast as jobs growth under Labor. Full-time jobs have been the coalition's hallmark. Since March 1996, full-time jobs have grown by 584,900—over 10 times more new full-time jobs than Labor created in its last two terms of government. Since the 1996 election, the number of unemployed Australians has fallen by 16.2 per cent to 619,900. The peak under Labor was 934,000 in December 1992—a vast difference.

The working poor and low-income earners have also benefited from home loan interest rates which, under the coalition government, are at their lowest levels for almost 30 years. Home mortgage rates are now at 6.55 per cent compared to Labor's record of 17 per cent. This means that the average borrower is paying $300 per month less in interest costs compared to then. The first home owners grant has also enabled many young people and low-income earners to realise the dream of owning their own home. Without this assistance, that goal might never have been achievable.

The coalition has a long history of reducing income taxes. In 2000, income taxes were reduced by $12 billion a year, and the replacement of wholesale sales tax by the GST means that those who previously escaped paying taxes now have no option but to pay their fair share of tax. Lower tax rates and increased thresholds mean the working poor are better assisted, because families get to keep more of their hard-earned income and also benefit from the increases in family benefits and child-care support. Under the new tax system, a single-income family on $38,000 per annum with two young children is over $57 a week better off because of the increases in family benefits and annual tax cuts.

Low-income earners are also gaining from the government's commitment to delivering real increases in the wages of Australian workers and more flexible workplaces. Labor's record in this area is abysmal. Under Labor, award wages for low-paid workers fell in real terms—a situation Labor ministers publicly boasted about, claiming it was a deliberate economic strategy. During the last financial year of the previous Labor government, real wages growth was zero. Over the life of the much lauded Labor-ACTU accord, even low-paid workers suffered a five per cent decline in real wages. Under Labor, the number of working poor actually increased.

The coalition has introduced—and continues to try to introduce, despite obstruction from Labor and the minor parties in the Senate—workplace relations reform. Despite the interference, the coalition has managed to create more jobs, better pay and higher productivity. For example, Work for the Dole opportunities have provided young Australians with improved employment prospects and delivered better opportunities for over 215,000 participants. A study into Work for the Dole has found that job seekers who have participated in this program have a 76 per cent better chance of finding jobs than those who have not. Labor intends to scrap this program.

Mandatory literacy and numeracy testing in schools will provide all children in their formative years with the best possible start by working to improve their ability to read, write, spell and acquire basic maths skills, ultimately leading to better job prospects later in life. And the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate has made private health insurance more affordable, and more than one million Australians on incomes of less than $20,000 per year have taken out private health cover—so it is not for the rich.

The coalition recognises that nearly 70 per cent of Australians do not go on to higher education and has revitalised the vocational education and training sector so that there are now more than twice as many apprenticeships and traineeships as there were under Labor. During the last two years of the Labor government, apprenticeships and traineeships as a proportion of the working age population declined to the lowest level for two decades. New apprenticeships have more than doubled since the years when the Labor Party were in office. There were 367,800 new apprentices in training in September 2002—compared to 135,000 under Labor in 1995—which represents an increase of 13 per cent from the previous June and is more than double the 1995 numbers; a commendable record.

Low-income families have also profited through this government's baby bonus. This initiative recognises that one of the hardest times for families financially follows the birth of a first child, when a family could lose one of its two incomes for a period. A total of 118,000 Australians received the baby bonus payment. The vast majority of payments—$31.4 million, which is 82 per cent of the total of $38.2 million—went to people with taxable incomes of less than $20,000. I believe the opportunity exists in the future for corporate Australia to put in place programs addressing incentives for families in the workplace.

The sad fact is that there will always be people who fall through the cracks through marriage breakdown, financial hardship or any number of contributing factors. While all Australians would agree that a safety net should exist to provide for these people in hard times, the government makes no apology for trying to reduce dependence on the welfare system or for introducing policies that strengthen the importance and wellbeing of the family structure. The working poor must be given the opportunity to make inroads and to provide for themselves and their families. All of the initiatives I have spoken about give them an enhanced opportunity to do just that.

The Labor Party have sat in opposition for seven years and while they profess to champion the cause of the working poor—and I have heard a number speak in that vein today—no-one else has a clue what their policies are about or what they stand for. It is just empty rhetoric. They say that they are in favour of Medicare, but they propose tax rises in order to provide this support. They will increase taxes on a mother giving birth to her first child by abolishing the baby bonus, and they will abolish the private health insurance rebate. The price tag with Labor is always the same: higher taxes. This is further borne out by the comments of Senator Conroy. When caught out by a young school student asking how Labor would pay for their initiatives, he said they would have to raise taxes or scrap programs. (Time expired)