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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21509

Mr ANTHONY SMITH (4:31 PM) —The substance of this motion and the issues it addresses are important. We all care about poverty and disadvantage. We all want to do all we can to limit it and to reduce it. That is precisely why there is absolutely no excuse for members to engage in scaremongering, to engage in exaggeration, to engage in misrepresentation and manipulation of statistics and above all to engage in hypocrisy and dishonesty. But that is precisely what we have had today and in the previous weeks and months from the member for Lilley and particularly today from the previous speaker.

If the member for Lilley were to be believed people could be excused for thinking that the sky was falling in, that the economy was bad, that unemployment was rising and that opportunities were decreasing. In the short time available, I want to address the lack of substance in the member for Lilley's arguments, I want to expose some of the blatant hypocrisy—which those on the other side know only too well, particularly the Leader of the Opposition—of the member for Lilley and I want to address some of the misconceptions that can occur in the debate about statistical inequality.

But first I will expose the member for Lilley's breathtaking hypocrisy. In all his speeches and comments—and, dare I say, roostering—he managed to not mention Labor's record once. He managed to not mention the fact that a decade ago the Australian economy entered one of its worst recessions, which saw household incomes collapse, a multitude of jobs simply disappear and record business bankruptcies. Back at that time—while he was not a member of this place, in 1990 and 1991—there was no concern from those on the other side about inequality.

Inequality was on a different basis: it was between those who had jobs and those who did not; those who managed to keep their houses and those who lost them. But at that time members opposite, from the former Prime Minister down, were shouting in the opposite direction just as loudly as they do today, denying that inequality was a problem.

Ten years on, Australia has emerged as one of the strongest economies in the world, unemployment is half what it was, interest rates are around a third of their peak in the early 1990s and real wages have undergone sustained and stable growth. If we believe what the member for Lilley says and implies—his coded message—we are supposed to think this is all bad.

How the member for Lilley can maintain this—how he can even mention poverty without mentioning Bob Hawke's amazing promise to wipe out child poverty by 1990—I do not know. If Labor's words were matched with actions, childhood poverty in Australia would have ceased to exist 13 years ago. But he does not mention that and he does not mention Labor's past and there are very good reasons why he does not.

One is he does not have a solution. In all his contributions, and particularly today through 15 minutes of talking, he did not say once what Labor would do. He did not offer a single solution, nor did he mention Labor's record—and the reason he never mentions Labor's record is because Labor's record and Labor's past actions are actually the member for Lilley's solution. If you want to know what Labor would do if ever they had the chance, you only have to look back over 10 or 15 years and see what happened then.

As we saw in question time today, what they did was reduce real wages. Real wages fell. The member for Lilley cannot have it both ways. At one point in his contribution he said the rich were getting richer, the middle was getting squeezed and the poor were getting poorer. At another point in his contribution he acknowledged that low-income earners had experienced increases in real wages but argued that they were not big enough.

The inescapable fact for the member for Lilley is that, after Labor was elected in 1983, for 13 years they reduced the incomes of the lowest income group in Australia. They reduced their take-home income, life became tougher and—as the Prime Minister said today—they did not hide it; they boasted about it. That is Labor's record. That is Labor's policy for the future. What they do not do is own up to it and what they do not do is acknowledge it.

When the member for Lilley seeks to imply that the rich are getting richer, he tries in a coded way to imply that the poor must necessarily be getting poorer—that somehow, if somebody is experiencing an income growth, someone else must be experiencing a corresponding income decline; that if a group of people improve their income it must be at the direct expense of another group. This is not only completely wrong and dishonest but also deeply cynical.

The latest evidence from the ABS and the latest comprehensive analysis from all of the academics who work in this area show that all income groups have experienced increases in income. That was highlighted in question time today. No group has gone backwards. Far from one group progressing while another regresses, all are gaining. The difference is in the rate of growth. Of course we would all like to see greater gains for low-income earners, but the point is that they are moving in the right direction, which is up, and they are moving in a direction in contrast to the direction they moved under Labor, which was down.

The other point about the measurement of statistical inequality which is often overlooked is that changes can occur for a variety of reasons. They are occurring to a degree at the moment because higher income groups are moving up at a faster rate than middle and lower income groups—but, as I have said, all are moving up. Changes can also occur if one income group moves while the others are static. It is actually possible in a statistical sense to have an improvement in the measurement of inequality if all income groups decline. Presumably, the member for Lilley would welcome that because it would be a better statistical outcome for him. But the fact is that it would completely ignore the measure that affects the day-to-day lives of Australians—that is, the measure of their livelihood; the measure of their living standards.

That is why the fact that real wages have increased is something that is far more important to the day-to-day lives of Australians than a mere statistical measure. The people out there in the suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast are actually concerned about outcomes; they are not concerned about a statistical measure. For the member for Lilley to use this to scaremonger and to exaggerate is dishonest and irresponsible in the extreme. What this tells us, of course, is that statistics can be manipulated—and they are manipulated by those opposite.

I will finish on a couple of points. If the member for Lilley has a solution, he should say what it is. He argues that the government has not intervened enough. Those opposite would argue that the government should do a lot more and they ignore what the government does do. If the member for Lilley believes in massively higher taxes, he should say so. The other thing the member for Lilley and particularly the left wing members of the opposition should do is be honest. I refer the members opposite to one honest left winger I have discovered: Clive Hamilton. Last year he said:

Difficult as it may be to admit, social democrats and democratic socialists have a psychological predisposition to believe that the mass of people are suffering from material deprivation.

In real terms, Australians today are at least three times better off than their parents were after the war, and the distribution of income is about the same. Unpalatable as it is to concede, inequality is not substantially greater than it was 40 years ago.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Order! The discussion has concluded.