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Wednesday, 1 April 1987
Page: 1621

Senator RICHARDSON(4.24) —Today is 1 April and having read the wording of the motion, which is `the need for the Government to reverse the policies which have severely reduced family living standards', we have seen the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Chaney, playing the April fool. I can understand that there are difficulties. The Opposition has been going through some trying times of late. But I did not think things were so bad that Senator Peter Baume and Senator Chaney were not on speaking terms. On only 23 February, just five weeks ago, an identical motion was moved by Senator Peter Baume. It stated:

The failure of the Labor Government to take the necessary action to stop the decline in living standards of Australian families.

An identical motion was moved five weeks ago. One would have to give Senator Chaney one out of 10 for originality. If he did not remember Senator Baume moving this motion, I remind him of what happened during that debate. The Government exposed the shallowness of the Opposition's case and I suppose we will go through that exercise again today. This morning I picked up the front page of the Australian newspaper and in trying to find out what the coalition was doing on tax policies I saw that it was again having some difficulties. The amount of tax Australian families pay has a great deal to do with their living standards.

Senator Bjelke-Petersen has just made a remarkable speech. She talked about the need to lower taxation for Australian families. I hope the honourable senator can listen, perceive and understand what I am about to say. Queensland Nationals are arguing for a 25 per cent flat tax. Mr Ian Cameron and Mr Sinclair of the National Party of Australia disagree about which policy has been agreed to. I am not sure which policy has been agreed to; I cannot follow it and I am sure nobody else can. However, I am sure that a 25 per cent tax as an average payment will come about in the 1986-87 financial year when a family's income reaches $24,488. The estimated number of taxpayers paying less than that amount now is three million males and 2 1/2 million females. Currently 5 1/2 million Australians are paying less than that amount. That is 81 per cent of taxpayers in Australia are now paying less than 25 per cent flat tax including 37 per cent who are pensioners. Yet Senator Bjelke-Petersen prescribes a 25 per cent flat tax to put up their taxation to an amount even higher than it is today. That is the only possible result of the honourable senator's policy. She will make Australian families pay more; she will make them pay through the nose, as usual, to support her white shoe mates who run around Surfers Paradise building apartment blocks. There is more to life than that. The honourable senator talked about reality. The reality is that 81 per cent of Australians, who pay less than 25 per cent as an average tax, will be penalised if the honourable senator ever gets into government. No wonder Joh Bjelke-Petersen's rating has dropped so much in the polls in the last three weeks; no wonder he walked out of the Lakeside International Hotel last Saturday or Sunday, tail between his legs, whipped yet again. As more and more people realise what he is doing he will be laughed off as the joke that he is.

Let me get to this rather sick joke which has been put on us today-this motion. The economic difficulties that Australia is facing today are the product of decades of neglect in the Australian economy. The Australian Labor Party has been in government for less than a quarter of the last 40 years so it will not take too much of the blame. However, successive conservative governments have stifled the Australian economy and how did they do it? They brought in more and more protection; they had no concern for manufacturing industry; they let it run down and thought that things would always be okay off the sheep's back; they thought that we could keep digging up yet another quarry; we would always find another mineral and life would be rosy. So they deliberately kept the dollar high. Honourable senators will remember the lunacy of the resource boom that Malcolm Fraser talked up some years ago. The Fraser Government relied on overseas borrowings which developed into an art form.

Senator Crowley —Senator Bjelke-Petersen has left the chamber.

Senator RICHARDSON —She could not handle the argument about the flat tax. That is why Senator Bjelke-Petersen has left the chamber. She could not stand the heat in the kitchen, even though there are no scones in the oven. The wages boom of 1981-82 was the disaster caused by the deregulation experiment of the Leader of the Opposition, John Howard. Over decades our international competitiveness was eroded. Superimposed upon that, since we have had an export price collapse in our commodities, some $6 billion has been wiped off our national income. The result of that is that we cannot expect what went on in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s-ever increasing living standards-can go on and on. We started to live too well; the world passed a verdict on that and if Australia ever wants to have such living standards again it has to get its house in order. That means tough responsible decision making and that means a Labor Government led by the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. The Opposition furiously peddles the illusion that somehow we will be able to go back to those days without any tough decisions being made, that we can keep things rosy and everything will be okay. Of course that is just not right.

Let us look at the Opposition's record when it was in government. How did it help Australia's living standards? Let me compare our approach with that of the Liberals. I reckon that the fundamental requirement upon which any Australian family bases its living standard is a job. If the breadwinner or the two breadwinners-as is common today-do not have a job, the family has to rely on social security and its standard of living suffers.

I do not think that the memory of Australian families is so short that they cannot remember what happened during the last terrible years of the Fraser-Howard Administration. During that last 12-month period in particular, a quarter of a million people-750 people every day for 12 months-were put out of work. Unemployment rose during the period of the Howard-Fraser regime to 720,000-an unemployment rate of nearly 11 per cent.

Five hundred thousand people were banished to the unemployment scrap-heap in the last 18 months of John Howard's reign as Treasurer of this country. Does the Opposition think that consigning more than half a million Australians to the scrap-heap did not have an effect on the living standards of their families? Are they to be isolated from reasonable living standards? Just consider what the loss of employment did to the 500,000 Australians who were knocked out of a job and had to go on to the unemployment benefit. Contrary to what Senator Bjelke- Petersen said, all of those Australians would have preferred to have a job. They were all part of Australian families. They did not have earnings from a job on which to pay income tax and, most importantly, they did not earn the money which they needed to feed their families.

That Liberal Party record borders on the criminal. The previous Government had no policy on wages and prices. Remember that lunatic experiment back in 1981-82 with the deregulation of the wages market. Remember how we were told how well it would go. We were told that that deregulation was going to fix the Australian economy, that unions and employees would get together, have a talk and sort things out across the table. We were assured that we would all be okay. We were told that there would be no need for the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to get involved. Of course, this resulted in an 11 per cent increase in wages in 1981 and a 14 per cent increase in 1982. This policy fuelled inflation to 11 per cent and it ruined the Australian economy-as it always will do. All it meant, of course, was that big unions won big increases, and that meant that the small businesses down the line were squeezed by the big boys and had to follow on. The previous Government had a shocking prescription for small business and even a worse one for families, who saw their living standards eroded by the high inflation regime it put in place.

What has been the Opposition's position on wages since then? Has it changed its mind? Who knows? I do not know. The Australian people do not know. No one knows. The Opposition will not tell anybody. First off we had Opposition spokesmen telling us that there was going to be complete deregulation. Then they backed off that. There was going to be semi-deregulation with some minimum awards. Amongst the Opposition ranks there are others who speak of a wages freeze. But no one knows. I do not know and the people do not know where the Opposition stands. So no one in Australian families knows what the Opposition will do with living standards as far as wages are concerned.

There is no confusion or contradiction on one point. There is only one consistent thing that we can say about the Opposition's wages policy in the last four years. Since we got into Government in 1983, the Opposition has opposed every wage increase that has been contemplated by the Arbitration Commission. The Opposition has been opposed on every single occasion to Australian families getting any increase in their wages. That is the Opposition's real prescription for Australian families. All it wants to do is protect its rich mates. It wants Australian families to be screwed once again. Not once has any Opposition spokesperson agreed that Australian families should be compensated with a wage increase to offset the effects of inflation-neither Mr Howard, nor Mr Brown, nor Mr Carlton. I do not think Mr Peacock has ever spoken on that subject. He does not speak on anything other than whether he wants to be leader.

The Opposition screamed long and loud over the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Government proposals for wage settlement and the amount that Australian workers subsequently received. We would be the first to admit that Australian workers have not received the full wage increase in line with rises in the inflation rate over the last few years. They were compensated as best we thought the economy could afford. But the Opposition would not have compensated them at all. It would have made sure that their living standards were screwed down further. It is the job and the pay packet which primarily determine living standards, and that was the area of great failure for the Howard-Fraser regime and it is an even greater failure for the Peacock-Howard, Howard-Peacock and now Howard Opposition. The Opposition's leadership changes on a day to day basis these days. We do not know where they are and, of course, neither do they. But, as I said, wages and jobs must count when we are looking at living standards.

Let us look at the Opposition's record on government income transfers to families. This is another important area. What was the legacy of the Fraser Government in this respect? As usual, low income families were the ones to suffer. Under the previous Liberal Government the number of children in low income families more than doubled, from under 9 per cent to nearly 20 per cent. One in every five children was from a pensioner or beneficiary family. At the same time, additional benefits and pensions were allowed to decline by 32 per cent in real terms.

Senator Bjelke-Petersen referred to the family allowance. The one child family allowance decreased during the Howard reign as Treasurer by 24 per cent in real terms. That is what a conservative administration did for the living standards of Australian families. In a three-child family, the decrease in real terms was 20.1 per cent. As always, the low income families suffered the most and suffered first. I might say that in the case of the Fraser regime, they suffered first, second and third. The sole parent pensioner with two children and no private income suffered a real decrease of 3 1/2 per cent. Beneficiary couples with two children also suffered a decrease. It did not matter where one looked down the list of low income families, made up by various component members, it was in that area that the suffering was the greatest, as it always will be under conservative administrations.

The pay as you earn families have had to carry an ever increasing burden when one looks at the level of living standards. I have heard Mr Costigan quoted in this chamber a number of times today. I remember when he said that the only industry that grew under Fraser was the tax avoidance industry. It grew at a rate comparable with the heady days of the Victorian gold rush. As the tax avoiders avoided tax, the ordinary Australian family had to pick up the ball. They had to pay everyone else's share and their living standards were eroded. What did the then Government do about providing these families with tax relief? We have heard a lot about tax today from a number of speakers, but in particular from Senator Bjelke-Petersen. What did they do when they were in government about tax relief? The answer to that question is an unqualified nothing. I can remember, as some Australians will, the infamous fistful of dollars campaign. Senator Bjelke-Petersen would remember the advertisements. The fistful of dollars was held up and we were told that this was going to be put back into the pockets of Australian families. Families are still waiting. They waited long and hard for the Fraser Government to do something and they got nothing. That is why they kicked the Liberals out.

Alternatively, the present Government's record on tax relief is there to be seen. We abolished the 62 per cent, John Howard-created tax level; it has gone. From July it will be down to 49c. The Government has done its bit. All the Fraser Government did when it was in power was put taxes up and up, and with that the Australian families' living standards went down and down. The first thing to be done is to compare this Government's record with the then Fraser Government's record on employment growth. Under the Fraser-Howard Government we had massive unemployment. Under this Government we have seen 700,000 jobs created, not destroyed. This has meant that another 700,000 Australian families have been able to live decently.

Let us stop these stupid motions that come before this Parliament. The reality is that no Australian family will ever be convinced of the bona fides of a conservative government as long as that government relies totally on defending the privileged position of the rich in terms of their tax, making sure that they do not pay their fair share. Ordinary Australians know that the Opposition always expects them to carry a greater burden. They also know that the Hawke Government will give them a fair go.