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Thursday, 2 June 1994
Page: 1216

Senator SHERRY (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy) (3.52 p.m.) —I shall take a little time to respond to some of Senator Short's assertions. Firstly, I remind the Senate that the matter we are debating—and we do not agree with it, obviously—is the assertion that the Keating government's policies have widened the gap between rich and poor and entrenched a permanent underclass. If we take the last five minutes of Senator Short's speech, we find that it is exactly like most all the speeches he makes in the Senate: we do not know what the topic is. All we get is a litany of economic complaints about what is wrong with Australia. The speech does not even go to the core of his own matter of public importance. He just reverses the titles and speeches on most of the occasions he speaks.

  During the first part of his speech he read out a range of statistics, and I must say that the use and abuse of statistics does become an art form in politics. I would like to go behind some of the statistics he quoted. He talked about 800,000 more Australians receiving social security. I think that is probably true, on the figures I have in front of me, but Senator Short did not attempt to analyse why that is so and in what areas that is occurring. He missed out a couple of very important areas. The significant reason for the growth to 800,000 of Australians receiving social security is in one major area—the growth of pension payments over the last 20 years. Why is that so? It has nothing to do with the gap between rich and poor—

Senator Short —What sort of pension payments?

Senator SHERRY —Age pensions.

Senator Short —They are not included in my figures.

Senator SHERRY —I know, Senator Short did not include them. That is exactly my point. The reason the number of people on the age pension is increasing is that we have an ageing population—

Senator Short —But I have not included them.

Senator SHERRY —I know Senator Short did not include them. He then referred to the unemployment figures, to sole parents and to disability pensions, and I am going to go behind those figures as well. Again, his abuse of statistics is absolutely appalling. In terms of disability pensions, why are there a significant number of people on disability pensions? Why has that figure increased? Senator Short did not explain why. It has nothing to do with the rich and the poor and the alleged gap that is emerging or the underclass—

Senator Short —What do you think it is?

Senator SHERRY —It is because of the number of people who are physically or mentally wrecked because they are approaching the end of many years of manual labour who are going onto disability pensions. It has got nothing to do with the government's policies.

Senator Short —It is because of your government.

Senator SHERRY —We will accept the blame for many things, but we will not accept the blame for more people going onto disability pensions. Senator Short talked about sole parents. Why is there an increase in the number of people going onto the sole parent's pension? Why is that occurring? He did not attempt to examine that in any detail. If we put that into context, the great bulk of women who are going onto the sole parent's pension are separated wives. Most of the rest are separated de facto wives. The same is true of the six per cent of those people who are men. So when Senator Short talks about it in that context, that is a change in society that I do not think we can be blamed for.

Senator O'Chee —But you are to blame for breaking down the Australian family.

Senator SHERRY —Breaking down the Australian family! Listen to that nonsense from Senator O'Chee. What is happening in the entire western world? I do not have the figures in front of me, but in the United Kingdom, where there has been a Conservative government for the best part of 15 years, the same trends are emerging. In the United States, the same changes in family relationships are occurring. Let me be honest. I do not blame the Thatcher government largely for what has happened with family relationships in the United Kingdom, any more than those opposite can blame us for the changes in family structures that have occurred in society. So why quote those statistics? They give a bit of a gloss to the arguments of those opposite but, when we look behind the gloss, there is no substance to the argument.

  As I said earlier, half of Senator Short's speech was spent talking about the alleged economic failures of this government, and he continued with his normal negative economic doom and gloom news. Even when there is some good news around, why does he not mention just one or two good points in his speech? Interestingly, on the question of economic statistics, again it is a matter of the use and abuse of statistics. I suppose we all get used to this in politics and we all indulge in it to some extent or other. Senator Short talked about the $45 billion tax take of the government back in 1983, when it took office, and now the amount is $120 billion, or whatever the figure is that he gave.

  The relevant figure is percentage of gross domestic product and how our tax take compares with that of other countries. Senator Short has acknowledged, in flashes of honesty in the odd speech I have heard him give, that as a government we are very low in the tax take area as a percentage of gross domestic product. When he pulls these figures out, he should at least try to put them into some sort of perspective.

  In terms of this issue, which has had some public prominence over the last week or two, a great deal of comment has been drawn from a recent ABS survey which alleged that living standards have declined in some areas for some people in the last 10 years or so. We rebut the ABS survey because it does not take into account non-cash benefits, which have expanded rapidly in recent years, and it does not take into account the government's social welfare policies, which have contributed to a significant increase in living standards, and the disposable incomes of the supposedly disadvantaged groups in the community about whom the opposition is criticising us in this debate. The government believes that equity considerations are important in wages policy.

  One of Senator Short's supposed solutions is to reduce wages by throwing workers onto the mercy of the market. That is how workers allegedly would be better off. Their wages would be reduced—

Senator Burns —Three dollars an hour.

Senator SHERRY —Three dollars an hour, I am reminded. That is a policy that we do not hear much about from the opposition. Returning to the ABS survey, it is a fact that the standard of living of low income families, if we take into account government transfer payments, has not decreased since 1983. Firstly, real household disposable income has risen slightly, by 1.3 per cent, in the last decade. Admittedly it is only slight, but it certainly has not decreased.

  The government's social welfare policies have contributed to a significant increase in the living standards and disposable incomes of disadvantaged groups in the community.   I need mention only a few of these: Medicare, social security, education, child care, employment and labour market programs. The government will spend $6.5 billion over the next four years to assist less well-off Australians, including $4 billion on employment and training initiatives.

  Another program, for example, is rental assistance, which was extended to low income families in 1987 and has since been significantly increased and indexed. The Labor government has delivered real increases in rent assistance for people without children and even more for families with children. In the budget, the government announced measures to assist the homeless, including accommodation assistance costing $63 million over four years.

  Since 1983—I continue to remind the Senate of this, and particularly the aged in our community who I see in the electorate—the value of the pension has increased significantly. It is our government that has carried out the commitment to index the age pension to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings. It is our government that did that, in stark comparison to those opposite when they were in government. We have been very pro-active in assisting in every area of our society where there are disadvantaged people.

  I finish on this note: there has been a 14.9 per cent real increase to single aged pensioners; a 57 per cent increase to single unemployed persons who are renting; and a 31.5 per cent increase to sole parents with two children who are renting. They are just some of the activist programs that we have taken to ameliorate some of the worst aspects of the capitalist system which we live in. We certainly accept a capitalist economic system, but the worst aspects of that system must be ameliorated.

  I suppose the worst aspect of Senator Short's speech is that there was absolutely no attempt to outline policies—the opposition does not have them—to ameliorate the worst aspects of the capitalist system and the effect that the disastrous economic consequences have on some people. Senator Short did not outline anything.