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Wednesday, 8 June 1994
Page: 1495


Senator CAMPBELL —My question is directed to the Leader of the Government in the Senate. I refer the minister to his answer to a question yesterday on the broadening gap between the rich and poor in Australia, when he said:

  If we want to argue about relative deprivation, I suppose we can argue about that. But the gap is only a meaningful gap if there are real problems at the bottom end of the spectrum, and that is not so.

Is the minister suggesting, in answering in that way, that the almost 30,000 young Australians under the age of 19 who have been unemployed for more than a year and the nearly 11,000 who have been unemployed for more than two years do not fall into a category of people experiencing real problems at the bottom end of the spectrum? Does the minister also consider that the 100,000 homeless youth, 96 per cent of whom have used marijuana, 82 per cent of whom have used amphetamines, 52 per cent of whom have used barbiturates, 74 per cent of whom have used hallucinogens, and 59 per cent of whom have used cocaine, are not at the bottom end of a widening and meaningful gap in Australian society? (Time expired)


Senator GARETH EVANS —It is helpful, I think, to get a few things clear when we are talking about inequality of income, wealth, richness, poverty and so on in this country. The first thing is, repeating what I said yesterday, that there is absolutely nothing surprising about an increased spread in the distribution of gross earnings in the kind of economy we now have. This is a widespread international phenomenon in advanced economies such as Australia. That is what having a high wage, high technology, advanced economy is all about: the lowest income earners do not get poorer, their earnings grow too, but at a slower rate.

  Of course there are some people who are outside the earning system who are unemployed—we are entirely familiar with that—and it is crucial for governments to play an active role in improving their wellbeing right across the spectrum, alleviating their relative poverty, which is a real phenomenon, and enhancing their skills so that they can stay in touch with a radically changing labour market and so benefit from higher paying jobs. That is exactly what our white paper is all about—removing that skill impediment and enabling these people, including the people of whom Senator Campbell speaks, to get back into the wage and labour force.

  The other significant problem in every attack that is made on the inequality performance of the country at the moment is an utter unwillingness to acknowledge the issue of data measurement. The problem with the sorts of measures of earnings distribution that we have seen from the ABS and elsewhere is that they do not have any proper regard for the redistributive effects of taxation, which are very significant in this country; they certainly do not have regard to non-cash support through Medicare, public housing, pharmaceutical benefits, pensioner concessions, non-cash support of that kind; and in most instances they do not have regard to the impact of cash income support other than through wages, salaries and dividends as well.

  Taking those factors into account, it is just not true to say that there has been the kind of gap that Senator Campbell is talking about, in the sense that the poorest members of our society have actually been increasing quite dramatically and very obviously their share of national income during the 1980s. But any consideration of these sorts of issues should, in a properly balanced way, take into account what the opposition has to say on these particular issues. A lot of problems of credibility are faced by these issues being raised on the other side of the chamber.


Senator Campbell —You're in government. You put these people out of work.


Senator GARETH EVANS —We might be in government now, but let us have a look at the opposition's poverty alleviation record. The last time it was in government it managed the trick of letting income support fall in real terms right across the board for lowest earners. For sole parents, income during the Fraser years fell by four per cent, whereas it has increased under us by 38 per cent.


Senator Campbell —Mr President, on a point of order, the fact that I might have been at primary school when we were last in government—


Senator Robert Ray —Did you pass?


Senator Campbell —Yes, just. Under standing order 73(4), the honourable senator should not be debating the point, which is what he is now doing.


The PRESIDENT —I would have thought it was not necessary to debate the point, Senator Evans, but finish your answer.


Senator GARETH EVANS —I propose to do so because what is in issue here is squarely the credibility of everyone on the other side who raises these particular issues. Their record stinks when it comes to the lowest income earners. It stinks with sole parents. It stinks with the single unemployed.


Senator Kemp —Mr President, I raise a point of order. Under standing order 73(4), it is absolutely crystal clear that the minister shall not debate the question. The question was quite specific. It related to the policies of his government. There was no mention of any other policies. Senator Evans should be brought into line.


The PRESIDENT —The minister was very close to the end of his answer, so I let him go. But when you lead with the chin I think you must expect these sorts of responses. Senator Evans, have you completed your answer?


Senator GARETH EVANS —Mr President, the minister is so distant from being near the end of his answer that it is not funny. I have got a lot more to say in response to people like Senator Campbell who come in here and challenge the government and then have the glass jaws that we have seen and an utter unwillingness to acknowledge the limitations of their own record and their own—


The PRESIDENT —Order! I urge you not to debate the issues.


Senator GARETH EVANS —I would argue very strenuously, Mr President, that this is absolutely relevant to answering questions like that, and I propose to continue, with your help.


The PRESIDENT —I urge you not to debate the issue. Standing orders say that the issue should not be debated. You can answer a question directly and quite effectively, I think, without debating the issue.


Senator GARETH EVANS —I will convey some information, then, about the opposition's record in this matter. I conveyed information about sole parents; I conveyed information about its record on the single unemployed—


Senator Kemp —Mr President, I raise a point of order. It is absolutely clear now that Senator Evans is defying your instructions. The question was clear; the standing orders are clear. If Senator Evans seeks to defy your rulings, he is to be sat down.


Senator McMullan —Mr President, on the point of order: I do not know by what definition of `debating the question' Senator Kemp would seek to interpret providing comparative information by which the existing circumstance can be judged as other than properly answering the question. `Debating the question' has a particular meaning and has been interpreted over a long time, but, to the best of my knowledge, it has never been interpreted to say that providing information that will enable the existing situation to be compared with previous circumstances constitutes debating the question or is out of order, and I do not believe it is.


Senator Alston —On the point of order, Mr President: that is a classic example of the sort of specious approach that is taken. Senator Evans was clearly contemptuous of your ruling. He was simply trying to convey precisely the same material under another guise by turning a debate into an information providing exercise. He was utterly contemptuous of the chair. He is not interested in the ruling. He is quite prepared to press on regardless, yet those opposite have the hypocrisy to pretend that somehow he has changed the subject. Senator Evans had not changed the subject. His attitude is quite clear and you ought to call him to order.


Senator Robert Ray —Mr President, when you were giving your ruling, Senator Kemp was yelling `outrageous' all the way through. So if Senator Alston wants to be consistent about people challenging the President's ruling, he should pull up his little acolyte over there.


The PRESIDENT —Senator Evans made it clear what he was doing. I was then about to judge what he was doing, but he did not get very far.


Senator GARETH EVANS —I will complete giving a couple of pieces of information, then I will explain what policies we do not propose to adopt on our side of the chamber. The information I wanted to give was about comparative performance. So far as single unemployed is concerned, it was minus 19 per cent during the Fraser years, and plus 57 per cent during our period. Performance for unemployed couples and pensioners was minus 2 per cent during the Fraser years, and up 23 per cent during our years. That is the background against which it is helpful, I think, to assess the credibility of those who claim that there is inequality in our current society, which is avoidable by government policy.

  Now let us turn in the remaining 30 seconds—there is not much time; I will have to take another occasion to do this—to some of the policies that have been adopted on the other side and which we are being urged to adopt but which would have a devastating impact on equal income distribution in this country. If those opposite want us to adopt populist but regressive welfare measures of the kind that we are being urged to do by Mr Howard, Senator Minchin and Mr Abbott, they are talking about creating a devastating impact on the distribution of wealth and income in this country. If we were to adopt the policy that Mr Howard is urging us to do—(Time expired)


Senator CAMPBELL —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. This person has created the hypocrisy. The reason for the question is that only yesterday—less than 24 hours ago—this minister said that there would only be a problem with income distribution. This is the party of social justice. People like Senator Zakharov came into this place because they fought for that. At the moment we have 600,000 Australians buying new cars at car yards and, only streets away, we have hundreds of thousands of young Australians without homes who are in the amphetamine trade. The minister says there is no problem. Does he still believe his words of yesterday that there is no problem at the bottom end of the Australian social spectrum?


Senator GARETH EVANS —I have already answered that question. But let me go on to say this: what contribution would be made to income and wealth distribution by Mr Howard's suggestion of income splitting, which would harm low income earners, with a couple on $20,000 per annum paying $200 more a year in tax while those on $100,000 worth of income would be paying $7,000 less?


Senator Campbell —Mr President, I take a point of order. I draw your attention to standing order 73(4). The minister is again continuing to debate the question. I asked him a question about what the government has been doing for the last 11 years, not what Malcolm Fraser did back in 1975.


The PRESIDENT —Is the minister rising to the point of order?


Senator GARETH EVANS —I am not talking about the past—I am talking, Mr President, about what we are being urged to do right now; I am talking about the income splitting that we are being urged to adopt right now.


The PRESIDENT —Order! There was a point of order raised.


Senator Alston —Mr President—


The PRESIDENT —Senator Alston, are you raising a point of order?


Senator Alston —I simply want to come to your protection, Mr President, because it seems that your own side is determined to treat you with contempt. A point of order was taken. You asked Senator Evans whether he proposed to speak to the point of order. What did he do? He threw it in your face. You ought to at least have the authority in this place to be able to tell him that if he is not going to speak to the point of order he ought to await your ruling. Stand up to him for a change.


The PRESIDENT —When I need you to give me advice, Senator Alston, I will ask for it. I do not need your advice and I do not need your assistance. I asked you whether you were rising on a point of order; you were not. On the point of order, the line of argument that is being used by Senator Evans seems to me perfectly appropriate. Senator Evans, you may continue.


Senator Kemp —What! Absolutely hopeless.


Senator Ian Macdonald —Answer the question.


Senator GARETH EVANS —I am addressing the future—what we are being urged to do.


Senator Robert Ray —Mr President, I take a point of order. Senator Kemp has again interjected on one of your rulings saying, `Absolutely hopeless.' This is about the fifteenth time he has done it in the last few weeks, and he should be brought to order on that.


Senator Kemp —Mr President, on the point of order: it is very clear from the rulings of previous people in your position that they have constantly ruled that the issues cannot be debated and that questions must be answered or the minister sat down. You in fact initially ruled that at the start of this question. Senator Evans proceeded to flout your rulings, and you refuse to take action. The reason we are complaining is that you have overturned the rulings of 92 years. If the President does not want the Senate to behave like this, he must apply the standing orders.

  Senator Robert Ray interjecting—


Senator Kemp —That is what we are asking him to do, Robert Ray—apply the standing orders.


The PRESIDENT —Order! You are talking utter nonsense. I have made my rulings perfectly clear. You may continue, Senator Evans.


Senator GARETH EVANS —Let me finish by saying just this: I am being urged to express compassion, understanding and a policy response on the part of the government to lower income earners. I will tell honourable senators one bit of policy we are not going to accept, and that is Senator Minchin's proposal, for example, for a flat child payment, regardless of family income—


Senator Campbell —Mr President, I take a point of order. I refer to the standing order relating to relevance. I asked the minister a question about the failed policies of 11 years of Labor which have cast aside 100,000 young Australians who are the forgotten people of the 1990s recovery. This government has forgotten them. I did not ask what Senator Minchin or Mr Howard want to do about it; I asked what the government has done about it for the last 11 years.


The PRESIDENT —Order! On that point of order, it seems to me perfectly relevant for the senator to be able to canvass alternative proposals that have been suggested.


Senator GARETH EVANS —Eleven years of Labor have increased the sole parents' income by 38 per cent and single unemployed incomes by 57 per cent, and there has been a 23 per cent increase for unemployed couples and pensioners. That is what our performance has been compared with the negative figures I talked about before. What I am saying is that, if we adopt the policies that we are being urged to adopt, it would mean, for example, for families—(Time expired)


Senator Gareth Evans —Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.