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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21506

Ms VAMVAKINOU (4:21 PM) —I think the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has a serious case of denial when it comes to the issue of poverty. What we have to understand is that poverty is not an issue that affects Third World countries only. Poverty also exists here in Australia. What we need to understand is that we are no longer the lucky country. We are no longer the egalitarian and wealthy country where everyone has the benefit of a fair go no matter what their station in life is. As much as the government wants to gloss over the devastating effects that its policies have had on Australian society, the fact remains that there is a growing social stratification where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Although it may seem to be a bit of a cliche, the reality is that Howard's battlers are being hoodwinked. I would like to quote Father Joe Caddy from Catholic Welfare Australia, who today said:

Australia is too fast becoming a country that is divided between the haves and have nots ... While this had been a decade of unprecedented prosperity, those on the margins are being left further and further behind.

That is why the matter of public importance submitted by the shadow minister for community services is timely. There is indeed a great urgency to understand the level of poverty in this country and to commit to doing something about it. The Treasurer comes into this place on a daily basis and happily lauds his economic prowess and success—but for whom? Who is reaping the fruits of Australia's economic success?

It is a strange form of economic prosperity that sees only a small section of the Australian population benefit. The Treasurer's much flaunted fiscal prowess amounts to ridicule when you consider the fact that one in eight Australians are living below a modest poverty line. The wealth creation he is so fond of boasting about is unfortunately not being shared fairly by all Australians. If you consider figures such as the top 20 per cent of income earners in the past seven years having had their incomes increase by seven times that of the bottom 20 per cent, or that earnings of the top five per cent are equal to the bottom 45 per cent, it is obvious that inequality in Australia is well and truly a social issue. That is proven by the fact that, in the last six or seven years of the coalition's rule, the number of people living in poverty in Australia has increased by 400,000.

Of the 2.4 million Australians living in poverty, many of them are in my electorate of Calwell. While the government continues to brag that its policies across the board are giving Australians a better chance to improve their lot in life, the reality out there on the ground is somewhat different. Howard's battlers are not only being left behind but also increasing in numbers, because government reforms amount to nothing but cuts to vital areas of education, health and welfare. The looming housing crisis, which is making housing unaffordable for so many Australians, is pitting the haves against the have-nots in Australian society.

If you look at the submission ACOSS made to the Senate poverty inquiry, one of 255 received so far, you will see that, try as it might, the Howard government cannot mask the level of poverty in this country. According to the executive summary of the ACOSS submission:

Thirty years after the National Poverty Inquiry and the establishment of the Henderson Poverty Line, there is evidence to suggest that poverty is now more widespread, against a backdrop of deeply entrenched social divisions:

more than 6% of the labour force is “officially” unemployed compared with less than 2% in the early 1970s. When we take into account hidden unemployment the current figure doubles. The number of long term unemployment recipients has also grown substantially from negligible levels to around 380,000 in 2003 ...

ACOSS is merely affirming what a lot of people in this place know to be the case: we have a serious problem with the number of people, especially in the age group of 45 and over, who are long-term unemployed. In fact, the Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations, of which I am a member, is currently conducting a public hearing into this disturbing phenomenon. It is a bit of a paradox, to say the least, given that the unemployment figures show a decline in unemployment. The ACOSS figures also show that 15 per cent of children—that is, some 860,000 kids—lived in jobless households in 1999, and 23 per cent of working age people were reliant on social security payments in 2000, compared to 16 per cent in 1981.

The government prefer to pursue a policy of blaming the victims. They do this constantly because, by blaming the victim, they deflect responsibility from themselves. Far be it from the Howard government to accept responsibility for the negative outcomes of their ideologically driven policies. The government, after all, give with one hand but take with the other. Let us not forget the GST and its negative impact on many Australian households, and pensioners in particular. Certainly the people in my electorate remind me of this constantly, and I also see it for myself as I visit my local supermarket on a weekly basis.

We squander our human capital when we do not give Australians, and especially Australian kids, an equal opportunity to develop their talents so that they can make constructive contributions to society and develop independent means of existence. Resources in the form of budget surpluses are squandered if they are not targeted to addressing inequalities in education, for example. Education is the key to breaking the poverty cycle; it is the means by which the kids in my electorate can get a better future. It is time for the education minister to get real about equal opportunity in education for all kids instead of storytelling and spinning yarns, because the kids in my electorate can easily see through his spin and fables. They recognise that his propositions for giving them a so-called fair go for access to university courses is nothing more than spin. I can also tell him that, next time he comes to my electorate, he should call in to my office because I would be more than happy to take him to my local secondary colleges, where the kids rely on breakfast programs funded by unions such as the CFMEU, and he can try and tell them that he is doing them a favour by increasing the number of fee paying places in universities. The truth is that the youth in Broadmeadows will never be able to avail themselves of his so-called generosity because they simply cannot afford it.

Since 1996, in Victoria alone the Howard government has cut $1.3 billion from universities and TAFE institutions, and the kids in my electorate are worse off for it. I can tell the minister that these kids do not want an increase in fee paying courses. They actually want more money to be spent on increasing vocational and educational training courses; they want their secondary schools to have similar resources to non-government schools. But the bottom line is that they want a fair go. They want a fair go because it is only through education that they have a hope of breaking free from the poverty cycle.

It is not only in the education sector that this government's policies are driving a two-class system. Let us look at the housing sector. The First Home Owners Scheme seems to be the jewel in the Treasurer's crown, but what has happened to affordability of housing for poorer Australians? The 105,000 or so homeless Australians—as at the 1996 census; no doubt, it is a much bigger number now—are being beaten to home ownership by one-year-olds and seven-year-olds whose parents are obviously clever enough and devious enough to avail themselves of the scheme's loopholes. The big housing boom in Australia has become a wealth creation scheme for high-income earners and property developers who are clever enough and resourceful enough to avoid paying taxes through the creation of family trust funds, always at the expense of poorer Australians.

The word `unaffordability' has become synonymous with this government. The people in my electorate should not be forced to choose between conflicting interests. They should not have to choose between buying groceries or seeing their local GP; they should not have to choose between the education of their children and other aspects of their family budget. The 30,000 parents of disabled children, many of whom are in my electorate, should not have to worry about the possible loss of their $87 fortnightly payment, because a caring, fair-minded government would never contemplate taking it off them in the first place.

We need to treat the issue of poverty in this country with the seriousness and concern that it deserves. Many Australians would be horrified to know the extent of poverty in this country. That is why events like Anti-Poverty Week and International Anti-Poverty Day are important because they not only draw attention to the fact that 1.2 billion people around the world are forced to live on less than $1 per day but also serve as a wake-up call for all Australians, and in particular governments, to realise that poverty exists in this the lucky country.

ACOSS is right when it states that:

Governments have an important role in drawing attention to poverty and disadvantage, in taking action to reduce it and to monitoring progress in addressing it.

The people in my electorate affected by poverty need help and assistance from government. They should not have to rely solely on the goodwill and charity of volunteers and church groups in order to provide the most basic day-to-day necessities.

Having said that, I want to pay tribute to the many good people in my electorate who run around collecting food and clothing for the hundreds of families who come to the neighbourhood houses' food banks on a Friday to get their weekly groceries, I want to pay tribute to these people because I have seen first hand the work that they do, I have seen the difference that their efforts make to families who cannot afford to buy clothes for their children and I have seen the delight on the faces of young children when they receive hand-me-down toys and clothes. And I have heard the despair and witnessed the futility that they feel because they cannot always find enough people to donate.