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Monday, 23 February 1987
Page: 412

Senator CHANEY —My question is addressed to the Leader of the Government in the Senate because it covers a number of Government portfolios. I ask: Is it a fact that the Government's Budget acknowledges that wages cannot be maintained in real terms, and that that means living standards in Australia must fall? Is it also a fact that, apart from some reduction in entitlements to the family allowance, no adjustment has been made to the family allowance or to the dependent spouse tax rebate by this Government over the four Budgets that it had brought down and that, as a result, they have lost more than one-third of their value since the Hawke Government came to office? Is the result of this, in a time of declining disposable incomes, that families with dependants are relatively even worse off than other Australian wage and salary earners? What will the Government do at least to restore the relative financial position of families, which has deteriorated markedly since it came to power?

Senator BUTTON —It is true that the Government's Budget predictions provide for a failure of wages to keep up with the consumer price index figures on an annual basis. In fact, in the last three years of government there has been a decline in real unit labour costs of the order of 7 per cent, as I understand it. The Government has been quite consistent in its view about that. The Opposition cannot have it all ways. It cannot be calling on us to have fiscal and wage restraint and so on.

Senator Chaney —I am merely asking whether it is true.

Senator BUTTON —It is true, but if Senator Chaney is asking me a question about living standards in the total context, as he is, I remind the Senate that the Opposition has consistently called for a wage freeze, which would have had a very marked impact on living standards, particularly for lower paid workers in this community. Again, he cannot have it both ways. Senator Chaney will be aware, of course, that in the current case before the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission the Government is committed to a flat increase, which at least has the advantage of being comparatively beneficial to lower income earners. It is true that there has been no adjustment to the family allowance, except for minor adjustments of the kind to which Senator Chaney referred. Senator Chaney asked me whether families with children were relatively worse off. I think it is true to say that most people in the community are relatively worse off as a result of the dramatic decline in Australia's national income because of our incapacity to market goods adequately overseas, falling commodity prices and the exclusion of many of our agricultural products from traditional markets. I think most commentators accept that, and there is recognition that we cannot have a declining national income of the order of which we have had dramatically in the past two years, but consistently over a number of years, and still sustain across the board living standards in the way in which they have, artificially, been sustained in the past. That is a fact.

I cannot give any sort of statistical information on the relative decline in living standards of people with young children and so on. I concede that those families are probably worse off, as other sections of the community are also probably worse off. For example, in the last Budget, the Government deferred pension increases for two periods. As a result of that, pensioners are relatively worse off. The position of wage earners is also that they are relatively worse off as a result of policies that this Government has embarked on over the last few years. As I have said, insofar as relativities are concerned, I cannot be precise about that but perhaps I can answer that another time.

Senator CHANEY —I ask a supplementary question, Mr President. I thank the Minister for his answer but I note that he said that families are probably worse off, as others are probably worse off. I ask him: Will he examine whether families with dependants are worse off to a greater extent than others? That is the whole point of my question-that the burden which is necessarily being borne by the whole of the Australian community, and which he has acknowledged, is in fact being borne disproportionately by families with dependants, whether those dependants are spouses or children. I ask: Will he examine the relative position of families with dependent children as against those people simply looking after themselves and without dependants?

Senator BUTTON —I am sure that, while some families with young children may be relatively worse off, they are not badly off. The point is: Whom are we talking about? Are we talking about a category of all families with young children as though there is some fixed point in history when all families with young children are capable of being categorised in a particular way, whether they are rich or poor families?

Senator Chaney —No; their relative position has declined; it is socially unfair.

Senator BUTTON —It is not socially unfair for the relative position of wealthy families with children to have declined.

Senator Chaney —What about poor families?

Senator BUTTON —I am quite happy to answer the question and I will obtain an answer in respect of that, but not in respect of the others.