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Thursday, 2 June 1994
Page: 1215

Senator SHORT (3.41 p.m.) —Since this Labor government came to power 11 years ago the gap between the rich and the poor has widened inexorably. Millions of Australians feel they have become disenfranchised from the comfort, security, stability and living standards that they once knew. Middle Australia feels deserted, unwanted and unknown by this government. Almost one million Australians, 10 per cent of the work force, remain unemployed. In excess of a further half a million, seven per cent of the work force, are classified by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as underemployed.

  Some 400,000 Australians are now long-term unemployed, that is, have been unemployed for more than 52 weeks. During the life of this government the average duration of unemployment in Australia has increased from 15.3 weeks to 27.8 weeks. Between August 1989 and August 1993 alone the number of long-term unemployed more than trebled as a direct result of the then Treasurer Keating's deliberately engineered recession. Today 800,000 more Australians are receiving social security benefits than when this government came to office, despite a considerable tightening of the eligibility requirements for such benefits.

  The number of unemployment benefit recipients is up 44 per cent; disability pension recipients are up 85 per cent; and sole parent pensioners are up 33 per cent. We are not just talking about cold statistics; we are talking about real people—real personal needs, real personal tragedies. In Australia today youth suicide rates are amongst the highest in the world. Not all of this tragic fact can be laid at the door of the economic situation, but certainly a large proportion of it can. Why? Far too many Australians feel they have lost the reason to hope that there is a better future ahead of them, that there is a `light on the hill', that there is that `vision' thing of which we have spoken in the past.

  Many feel that they are the deprived people of Australia—that this government and this Prime Minister (Mr Keating) in particular have turned them into a permanent underclass. This is happening while the same Prime Minister, of course, lives in luxury and spends the taxes of the poor on Gould prints, teak tables, $200,000 carports and all the other trappings of imperial office.

  This same man is flying off to Europe today for the D-day celebrations, and I am very glad indeed that he is. But he is going despite his initial decision not to attend because he did not even know that Australian service men and women had participated in Operation Overlord. This same man, Mr Paul Keating, was the architect of the economic policies that led coldly, calculatedly, deliberately and cruelly to the establishment of a permanent underclass in this great nation of ours through an arrogant disregard for the fundamental requirements of economic policy and whose policies have led to the neglect and the discarding of those millions of hardworking, decent middle Australian families.

  Mr Keating's rich mates are okay; by and large they have done well. Even the high income earners have not done too badly. The top 10 per cent of wage and salary earners are some 7 1/2 per cent better off in real terms today than when Labor came to office. But even that is a pitiful increase compared with the potential that this nation has to provide. Under this government the bottom 10 per cent of wage and salary earners have actually gone backwards, on average by between five per cent and 10 per cent. So the gap between the higher and lower income earners has widened quite dramatically since 1993.

  The well-off have become more well-off, while the real incomes of the lower income earners have actually fallen. That is just for those with jobs. That does not take account of the 400,000 long-term unemployed, the nearly one million unemployed, the further half million underemployed, and the 800,000 additional people who depend on social welfare for their existence. Taking all of those into account along with middle Australia, the lower income recipients of our society have fared very badly indeed.

  It does not have to be like this in Australia. It is a disgrace that we have an underclass at all, let alone one that seemingly has become permanent. The only reason for this obscene predicament is the policy failures of this government. In the main they have been failures of economic policy, but this government's record across the policy field as a whole has been appalling: we have had huge tax increases over the past 10 years to fund excessive, wasteful spending by the government.

  Since this government came to office the tax take has gone up from something like $45 billion a year to this year's record $120 billion. But even with that huge increase in taxation, it has not been enough to fund the government's spending. As a result, in the past five years alone the government's debt, the government's borrowings have increased three-fold from about $30 billion to $90 billion. That debt commands interest which has to be paid—let alone paying back the debt—and the interest can only be paid by the taxes of wage and salary earners in the main.

  So we have a totally irresponsible, reckless economic budget policy which has caused that debt to blow out like a huge balloon. That ignores altogether the foreign debt that has been built up under this government—an almost eight-fold increase in our foreign debt to a figure now in excess of $210 billion. That debt has to be paid for with interest payments, which alone this year will cost Australia $18 billion. That pressure by government for borrowing increases interest rates. In Australia today, despite the fall in nominal interest rates over the past couple of years, we still have arguably the highest real interest rate in the Western world. If it is not the highest, it is within the top two or three. That has all happened because of the government's inability to get its own fiscal house in order.

  In addition to those budgetary disasters and policy failure, we have seen in this government a failure to grasp the nettle of industrial relations reform. The government, time and time again, toadies to the trade union movement in the reforms it will allow to be introduced in this country. As a result, the extent of change is far too limited relative to what this nation needs if we are going to provide the flexibility in the work force and the terms and conditions of employment that will allow Australians to earn a better living and have a better way of life.

  There is a failure to undertake the necessary reforms to make our ports, shipping, transport structure, communications, power generation and distribution and our water supply—that is, our basic infrastructure industries—more productive to make Australia sufficiently competitive. There is a failure to provide the necessary incentives, the climate, the overall culture for Australians to produce more, to do so more productively, to earn more, and to keep more of the rewards for their efforts.

  My colleagues Senators Brownhill and Knowles will have more to say about these matters. Let me conclude by repeating that it is the policy failure of this government, and that alone, that has widened the gap between the rich and the poor, that has disenfranchised middle Australia and so tragically produced the permanent underclass we have today. It need not have happened; it should not have happened; and it will not happen under a coalition government.