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Wednesday, 1 April 1987
Page: 1624

Senator REID(4.38) —At the request of the Opposition, we are discussing today the `need for the Government to reverse its policies which have severely reduced family living standards'. Senator Richardson complained, of course, about the Opposition raising this topic for the second time in five weeks. There is a very good reason for the Opposition bringing this up for the second time in five weeks. It is that important as far as the Opposition is concerned. It indicates the measure of our concern for families and the situation in which they find themselves under a Labor government. Earlier in the debate Senator Tate spoke for the Government. He tried to hide behind the Australian Bill of Rights as an indication of the Australian Labor Party's concern and commitment for the family. He said that the Government was trying to legislate for the welfare of the family in the Bill of Rights.

Thousands upon thousands of Australians knew what the Bill of Rights meant for the family-it did not protect it. They signed petitions and wrote letters. Finally, of course, even the Labor Government had the good sense to realise that this proposal was not popular and not wanted. It withdrew the legislation. The Bill of Rights did not protect the family. Now is not the time to re-run the Bill of Rights debate. Many Australians who became involved in the debate in the community and who attended meetings know what the Bill of Rights meant to the family.

We also heard Senator Tate tell us that it was best for families to have a wage earner and not to be on social security. Nobody would argue with that as a proposition. But it is, of course, a sad thing to note that Labor's own estimates indicate that there will be 2,824,000 Australians on welfare in 1987-an increase of 430,600 or 18 per cent since the Labor Government took over this country. They are not figures that any member of the Government ought to be proud of. We do want wage earners, and we want wage earners who are able to support their families.

We have heard that the Opposition has opposed wage increases. But we are talking about the real value of the household budget that a family has. Families are being faced with falling real wages. We want real living standards increased, not the meaningless wage increases that have been talked about this afternoon. Families, as I said, have suffered from falling real wages. They have suffered from an increase in taxation, which has affected small businessmen as well; rising prices; high interest rates; and continuing high unemployment, particularly for young people. They have been faced with increases in mortgage repayments and a rental crisis which has meant that many families have had difficulty obtaining accommodation in recent times. We have heard about the family allowances. Far fewer families are receiving the family allowance now than when Labor came to office. Firstly, the Government cut out the family allowance for students over the age of 18 years, and the means testing last year of the allowance for 16- and 17-year-olds has caused a dramatic drop in the number of families able to receive the family allowance. There are many families that need it and have had to rely upon it to cope with their financial budgeting in recent times.

The taxation burden has fallen particularly heavily on families. Some of the wage increases that Senator Tate referred to earlier virtually have been wiped out for families that have found themselves in a different tax bracket. They have not been better off as a consequence. We all know that this year the Government, through new or increased taxes, is collecting $1.4 billion more than it did in the last year. The tax rate on average weekly earnings has risen from 23.9 per cent in March of 1983 and, even after the tax cuts which we have heard so much about, a family with a dependent spouse and two children will be $15 a week worse off. There has been no real relief whatever from anything in the area of taxation, and families out there know it.

The cost of living has risen dramatically-18.8 per cent. I want to refer to some of the specific figures that have been the burden of families in these last few years. The food bill has gone from $80 to $105 on average. Home repayments is an area where there have been dramatic increases. They have been suffered by those who have been trying to rent homes, by those who have been paying off mortgages, and by those who have been attempting to purchase their own home. Based on a $40,000 loan, the average interest rate has risen from 12.5 per cent to 15.5 per cent. In some cases, people are paying even higher rates of interest for money they have borrowed. That has had a most dramatic impact on the family budget for those who are purchasing homes.

Health insurance has gone up. The levy was increased in the last Budget from 1 per cent to 1 1/4 per cent. Those who have taken the precaution of retaining their private insurance-or who have attempted to retain their private insurance-have had their costs go up from what was a $9.10 payment prior to the Labor Government to what now amounts to $15.44 for those on average weekly earnings. That is, again, a dramatic increase. Many people have had to give up their private hospital insurance because they have not been able to afford it. We now find that there are many people waiting for surgery; about 100,000 people throughout Australia are waiting to get into the hospitals for what is rather quaintly referred to as elective surgery. All of those who are on the lists and waiting for surgery know what `elective surgery' really means. Elective surgery is not something one might have or might not. It is surgery which is needed but is perhaps not life threatening at the particular time. It does have a great impact, of course, when a breadwinner who has something like a hernia-which is regarded as elective surgery-is off work for perhaps six to eight weeks before he can get into hospital. The effect of that on a family is quite dramatic.

Senator Tate —What about the effect of the doctors union in Canberra?

Senator REID —Many people do not have the sort of insurance which enables them to cover that circumstance, and I have known of people in Canberra who have been delayed for surgery and unable to earn in the meantime and who have been absolutely frantic about how they will pay for their house and how they will feed their children. Senator Tate mentioned Canberra. Canberra has had a bad run under Medicare, and this has gone on right from the beginning. There has been trouble in the laundries when elective surgery was banned; there was the national doctors' strike earlier; there were problems with the nurses and the nurses' strike last year; we have a problem between doctors and the hospitals over the service to be provided by private doctors in the hospitals.

Senator Tate —Do you support the doctors?

Senator REID —No, we do not support them. No one has said that we do.

Senator Crowley —We are glad to hear you deny it. It is the first one we have got.

Senator REID —Well, it is not the first time it has been denied; it may be the first time that Senator Crowley has heard it. The effect, of course, is borne by those who are dependent on Medicare for their health services. The waiting lists have been quite dramatic and it is something that really ought not to be tolerated. It certainly is not what people believed they were being promised when they voted to support Medicare.

Let us look at the situation as far as housing is concerned. Families on average weekly earnings have been virtually squeezed out of the market. They are forced now to spend about 37 per cent of their after tax income on housing. I certainly grew up accepting-and I thought everybody did-that about 25 per cent of after tax income was the amount that one would pay for housing for a family. That is no longer the case, and the effect of having to pay so much is causing many families to have to consider even giving up the homes that they have been attempting to purchase, especially those who have bought for the first time in the last few years. I spoke to a real estate agent in Canberra only a week or so ago who told me that the real estate company that she worked for had five houses on the market for auction during April and that they were all former family homes which had to be got rid of because the families could no longer maintain the costs that they were having to pay to retain them. That is a particularly serious problem. We will have five families looking for alternative accommodation; they probably will have to shift to another suburb and the children to another school. The disruption to their whole lifestyle is quite significant. The effect on the children is significant. Disruption to education ought not to be taken lightly. But there are people who can no longer pay what they are being asked to pay under mortgages which, when they took them on, seemed quite reasonable. People have embarked on purchasing homes with the low-start loans which also have gone up so significantly that they are in financial difficulties.

I have spoken in this place on other occasions about the sort of letters I have had from constituents which have so graphically set out their financial situation, explaining the difficulties they have in trying to meet the repayments-trying to do what they believed was the right thing, to have the security of their own family home for their children and the security of living in a suburb where they could feel that they belonged and where their children could grow up. There are about 3,000 new houses on the market in Canberra at present. There is a crisis in the housing industry. There are people who would like to purchase these houses. There is money available, but these people can no longer afford the repayments, and the impact of this on the economy of Canberra will be quite significant.

At the same time, of course, the public housing waiting list in this country has grown dramatically over the last four years. It is absolutely incredible that there are now about 160,000 people on the public housing waiting list-a dramatic increase. There are about 400,000 people living in caravan parks and about 100,000 people who are classed as being permanently homeless. So those who are dependent on the rental market also have extreme difficulty. There are figures available as to the increase in rents which has occurred in recent times. We hear quite pathetic stories of families not being able to get accommodation, and of families who split up and have to live in two different places because they are not able to maintain the sorts of repayments that they had been able to pay previously.

The average monthly repayment of mortgages increased in the Australian Capital Territory by 12 per cent in the last 12 months-and that is the lowest increase in Australia-to an average of $718 per month. In Tasmania the rate of repayment per month is $468. That is the lowest repayment figure, but it represents an increase of 35 per cent over 12 months. In New South Wales there was a 21 per cent increase to $698. In Victoria there was a 24 per cent increase to $609. These are figures which families know about and which cannot be ignored.

The inflation rate, of course, has had an impact on families, the things that they buy and the value of their money. Senator Tate earlier referred to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report which was published in this morning's paper. It was interesting that he should have referred to it. It seemed to be the only report on which he could draw to give a glowing report of the economy. We all know, of course, that the OECD report is based on information that is supplied by the Australian Treasury, so the same sorts of things can be said about that as can be said about other financial forecasts and other financial figures that we have been talking about today. Our economy is not likely to improve while our inflation rate stays at a level which is so different from those of our trading partners. What is Japan's inflation rate at present? It is almost non-existent. The rate in West Germany is 0.25 per cent; in the United States of America it is 2.5 per cent; and ours is over 6 per cent, perhaps even higher. There is a forecast of 8 per cent for this year. It is all very well to say, as the Government does, that the inflation rate is down from what it was, but it is the comparison that counts.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Giles) —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.