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Monday, 3 November 2003
Page: 21789


Mr SWAN (6:14 PM) —I request that the amendments to the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Extension of Time Limits) Bill 2003 be made, because families under financial pressure simply cannot afford this government, and there are two key amendments which ease that financial pressure. What we have here is a family payment clawback that makes Ned Kelly look like Santa Claus. Families pay more tax and get less in family payments under this government, and then they are expected to pay more and more for the health and education of their kids. The $1 billion black hole, which was highlighted in today's question time, has been saved by stripping it from the payments of hardworking Australian families. The answer that Minister Anthony gave today shows how mean and tricky the government is prepared to be to cover up its withdrawal of much needed family payments.

Last year, 2002-03, the Howard government spent $1 billion less in family tax benefit and child-care benefit than it forecast. This system has an inbuilt automatic clawback that ensures that families never get what they expect, and this goes to our two amendments. First of all, people who needed a catch-up, not a top-up, in the first year of operation have been denied it, costing them $37 million. That is $37 million that has been ripped from those people because of this mean legislation. So one of our amendments goes to the core of that.

The second amendment goes to stopping the stripping of tax returns which so far, to our knowledge, have been stripped from 230,000 Australian families. We are constantly told by this government that this is a generous system. How generous it was in 2000-01, when it came in. It was so generous that families were to be compensated much more than the cost of the GST. We now know that it is $1 billion less than the government has claimed. In fact, if you look at some of the new analyses of this payment system you will see that families receive in real terms $212 million less in family tax benefit than they did in the first year of its introduction. That is, in real terms there is now less money after three years of operation of the system than there was originally, plus families have been saddled with the GST, plus they have been saddled with extra costs of education, plus they have been saddled with extra costs of health care. That is why families feel under tremendous financial pressure. So tax is up, family payments are down and family budgets are squeezed.

Today in question time the minister produced a typically mean and tricky answer to explain this clawback, which goes to the very heart of our amendments. He asserted that the clawback happened because of stronger than expected growth in wages. He said that it came about because of the means testing of benefits. That was a lie. The problem is that the initial budget forecast of wages growth for that year was 4.2 per cent and it was downgraded by the Treasury to 3.25 per cent. So wages grew less than was anticipated. The government took $1 billion out in the last financial year and it says that it happened because wages grew more than it thought they would. It was simply a lie. That is why there is an enormous clawback which goes to the fundamental problem with this bill, which is that there are parts which automatically take payments off families who are entitled to them. Families need these payments to feed, clothe and educate their kids on a weekly and fortnightly basis.

When the minister spoke to the amendments he had the hide to say that we could not provide the catch-up, not the top-up, to families for 2000-01 because that need had passed, yet he refuses to change the debt trap in the system and says, `It's okay; families should take less on a yearly basis and claim it at the end,' as a justification for the fact that it is a debt trap. It is a family payment clawback. It is one of the biggest fiddles that have ever been imposed on Australian families in the history of this nation. The government is quite prepared to pay family payments to millionaire families but when it comes to average families it will not pay a category of the catch-up payments. When it comes to the broad mass of families, they are all being saddled with debt.

This government's family payment debt trap is tearing the heart out of family budgets and placing parents under great financial stress. It is hitting one in three families. The average debt is $900. That is why these amendments must be passed—to stop the government thieving back this money from people's tax returns. That goes to our amendment about stripping. This government is like a thief in the night. It is building its surplus on the hard work of Australian families—(Time expired)

Question put:

That the motion (Mr Anthony's) be agreed to.