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Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Page: 882


Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (20:23): I rise tonight to talk about inequality, employment and other key indicators of quality of life in Western Australia. I have talked previously in this place about reports from the BankWest Curtin Economic Centre. I raised the issues around its reports about sharing the benefits of the boom when it was at its height in Western Australia and raised the fact that inequality increased in Western Australia. In fact the philosophy of the 'rising tide floats all boats' is a flawed approach and not all the benefits of the boom at the time were shared equally by all people in Western Australia. People with more wealth and higher incomes tended to get a bigger share of the benefits hence the increasing inequality. This issue also came up during a Senate inquiry into inequality in Australia, which I chaired, and we noted then the increasing inequality in Australia. However, to get back to the focus of my discussion tonight in more specific detail, I want to talk about report that was released by the BankWest Curtin Economic Centre late last year—Back to the Future: Western Australia's economic future after the boom.

The BankWest Curtin Economic Centre is an independent economic and social research organisation located at the Curtin Business School at Curtin University with a focus on examining the key economic and social policy issues that contribute to the sustainability of Western Australia and to the wellbeing of households both nationally and in Western Australia. Using the latest data available, this report looked at recent changes in the state's economic trends in light of the trailing off of the resource boom. The report contains some very interesting facts about changes experienced by Western Australian households including changes in employment and wealth and income inequality.

The report found that there are no strong signs that we are moving to a more egalitarian society and while some indicators for income inequality have dropped, wealth inequality has not. The richest 20 per cent of Western Australian households hold at least 64.7 per cent of the state's aggregate household net worth. I think people will agree that is a significant amount of wealth held by a relatively small percentage of the people. The report also found that there is an evident gender gap of some 33 per cent in median gross incomes between men and women. I would say it is simply not good enough for my home state of Western Australia to have that appalling difference in gross income between men and women.

The report found there have been significant shifts in Western Australia's labour market over the last few years. It shows that workforce casualisation is on the rise. Between 2008 and 2014 the share of casual employees in Western Australia rose from 20.5 per cent to 22.5 per cent. Running alongside an increase in the casualisation of the workforce, there has also been a downward trend in full-time employment and a rise in part-time employment. This shift undermines the belief that most Western Australians will secure and maintain long-term full-time employment for his or her working life. By these figures, it confirms that employment increasingly will be insecure and that people may be required to hold multiple jobs at the same time to make up their preferred working hours. If this was a reflection of someone's individual choice, that they wanted more flexible working hours or wanted fewer working hours, that would be one thing. However, the report points out that some of the growth in part-time employment has been largely involuntary in nature. In other words, people are not choosing the casualisation and part-time employment approach but are being forced into it. The report also found that at both a state and national level, the growth in new employees has been negative in recent years and there is a clear decline in the number of new traineeships being offered.

The report found that the contribution of health care and social assistance to the state's employment has grown from 9.5 per cent to 12 per cent between 2010 and 2015. It is clear that the health care and social assistance sectors are growing as the population ages. However, the report notes that this sector also faces challenges related to high costs and low pay. The report says that if the state is to capitalise on the growth in this sector then issues related to sectoral wages and working conditions will need to be addressed. They say there is:

… the need for efficient, creative and imaginative policy settings to take full advantage of new opportunities for economic growth and future industrial development. This responsibility extends to the imperative for new, secure employment opportunities for the state's workforce. In doing so, it is surely also worth reflecting on the fact that the labour market of the future—flexible, multi-faceted, portfolio-based—may well be substantially different from the labour market of the past.

It is obvious from the work of this report that some significant changes need to be made to avoid an increase in inequality in Western Australia and a further concentration of wealth in the hands of a small percentage of Western Australians.

This was not hard to predict. I had a report done in the mid-noughties, and there were others, that showed that the benefits of the boom were not being shared equally across the population. If you were working directly in the mining industry on high wages, you were getting the benefits, but people working in the public sector, our police, our emergency service responders and those that worked in retail and hospitality were not sharing the benefits of the boom. I think that has contributed to the increase in income and wealth inequality that was occurring, where wealth became more and more concentrated in a small percentage of Western Australians. It was clear at the time that the Barnett government did not make the appropriate policy decisions to invest the benefits of the boom wisely.

As we come out of the boom, we see that employment is becoming less secure and more part time, that we have this appalling disparity between men's and women's pay and that, where we are seeing an increase in wealth inequality, we need policy approaches that are different to the same old, same old. I am not at all confident in the Barnett government, given that they did not ensure the sharing of the benefits of the boom. There are some serious issues that need to be addressed in the tailing-off of the boom, and the Barnett government has failed to address those, nor has there been leadership from the federal government, who also are failing to address the issues of growing inequality. They have refused to address the issues of the concentration of wealth in the rich; in fact, they want to give tax cuts to the wealthy and to take money off the most vulnerable members of our community, as can been seen from the 15 clauses in the omnibus bill. The coalition, at both federal and state level, has mismanaged the benefits of the boom and has increased inequality. (Time expired)