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Friday, 28 June 2013
Page: 4465

Senator BACK (Western AustraliaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (13:09): I certainly acknowledge the passion and the long-term interest of the previous speaker, Senator Siewert, and I join Senator Fifield in the comment that the coalition will not be opposing this legislation. Isn't it a shame that it has had to come into the chamber at all? What it does is try to undo some of the damage that Labor wreaked in what was a very, very callous attack on single parents in the latter part of last year. In so doing, Labor attacked vehemently the household budgets, as they are, of single parents. Senator Siewert has correctly and eloquently identified what those hardships have been as a result.

We are here, today, engaged in this activity, because of the overwhelming outcry that occurred throughout many, many sectors of the community, such as the not-for-profit sector, the charity sector and the business sector, along with those others who were directly affected by this action. The matter was not helped when Minister Macklin made her intemperate comments about people being able to live on Newstart from the day that these changes would come into effect. I know that Senator Siewert and others made the attempt to live on Newstart and reported their inability to do so. I have participated in several inquiries by the Standing Committees on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations on this particular subject and it has, of course, been a harrowing experience to listen to the stories that are told. I have also had some association over time with bodies such as St Vincent de Paul and have visited and seen on the ground the damage that is wreaked upon these people.

Now we have a circumstance whereby some 80,000 of Australia's most vulnerable families, generally single parent families, have been rushed into the position where they are to be moved off the parenting payment onto Newstart. Last year, when this measure was being proposed for a start date of 1 January 2013, I recall the impassioned pleas to the government to at least have some heart and delay or defer the commencement until March. Why?—for a number of reasons. Firstly, all families have increased costs leading up to Christmas. Secondly, straight after Christmas casual employment usually ceases or drops off and it is much more difficult for single parents, particularly single mothers, to find employment. Thirdly, the costs associated with the return to school is difficult. As usual, of course, this government was not in the least bit interested in that.

Senator Fifield correctly put his finger on it and noted that now the piggy bank is empty. This government has spent all of the funds that were available to it after the prudence of the previous Howard-Costello government. The $40 billion that was in the bank went very, very quickly. Perhaps one of the most disappointing and telling factors of this proposed legislation, which we are not opposing and which Senator Siewert has concurred the Greens will not be opposing, is the financial impact. The financial impact over the five years, the so-called out years, of taking people off the parenting payment and moving them to Newstart, and the difficulties associated with this, leads to an expense of $300 million. That $300 million sounds like an enormous amount of money, but do you know how much $300 million accounts for in actual interest on the debt we have in this country? It is 10 days. The $300 million over five years accounts for a mere 10 days interest on the billions of dollars of debt that this Labor government has run up.

People can put it into their household accounts and relate the $300 billion perhaps to $300,000 of debt, or they can see what the impact would be on their business. But it is when you end up spending the surplus you have, when you end up wasting vast amounts of what, at the end of the day, are taxpayer dollars, that the chickens come home to roost, and the chickens are now well and truly back in the roost. The money saved from this situation--the situation correctly outlined by the previous speakers--and the impact it is having on those single parents equates to a mere 10 days interest—not the repayment of the principal, just the interest on the debt. As Senator Sinodinos said to me as he left the chamber when I drew his attention to the fact: 'Don't forget, Senator Back, that globally interest rates are now going up, so the 10 days of interest will probably be about eight days of interest.' Therein lies the tragedy.

In our committee hearings—and Senator Siewert was a member—we saw what has now become the first measure in this bill. The measure originally was that a recipient of the Newstart allowance, widow allowance, partner allowance, parenting payment and sickness allowance could earn $62 a fortnight before that had any impact on payments to which they were eligible. We all know that the minimum wage for an adult is now $16 an hour and in most circumstances you have to employ someone for at least three hours. Three 16s are 48, double that is 96—so anybody who was only getting $62 per fortnight was either working for less than they were entitled to or they were doing fewer hours. This is acknowledged, and it was the work of the committee that pushed towards elevating that $62 to $100 per fortnight.

The second measure relates to eligibility for the pensioner education supplement for a single principal carer parent receiving Newstart. That is no doubt a benefit, but I hasten to the obvious fact that it does not help any single parent who is not studying. The third measure provides a 12-week extension of eligibility for the pensioner concession card to single parents who no longer qualify for the single parenting payment. I cannot help but reflect—and Madam Deputy President Stephens, I know you have a keen interest in the welfare of the wider community, as we all do—that we have to do this measure, and 10 days interest on the debt would have obviated or removed the need for that action to take place.

In the hearings that we had into these matters last year—the move from the single parenting payment back to Newstart, the adequacy of Newstart—to which we all contributed, there were several interesting points that came up. One of them was that one-third of this nation's expenditure budget, 33 per cent of the overall budget, is expended on social security and welfare. Senator Siewert is quite right: we are a wealthy country and we have a very small population on a very large landmass. Although it is not relevant to this discussion, I would always plead that we got there because of cheap energy, and one of the direct and indirect effects of the six years of this government has been to remove cheap energy and at the same time attack individual wealth. Nevertheless, I go back to that statistic: 33 per cent of our expenditure budget is on social security and welfare and, for your interest, 16 per cent is on health, eight per cent is on education. I asked several witnesses as they said they needed more: do you want to see a reduction in commitment to health? Of course, everyone does not. Do you want to see a reduction in commitment to education? No-one does. The obvious answer is to have a look at that 33 per cent, to have a look at the expenditure within social security and welfare, accounting for one dollar in three of this nation's expenditure, and start to target it at the higher priority areas. I would defy anyone to be able to mount an argument to any of us in this chamber that the people about whom we are speaking would not be right up at the top of that priority order.

Should the people of Australia honour the coalition with government later this year, whenever that is, I would ask all sides of politics to have a good, long, hard look at where those priority orders are. I want to give you an example if I may. Only three weeks ago the member for Murray and I visited a meatworks in the Goulburn Valley of Victoria, the highest youth unemployment area in Victoria, according to Dr Stone. That particular abattoir was seeking to employ 50 unskilled workers. They wanted no skills, because they would train them on the job for long-term, secure employment. But nevertheless, as senators would understand, the nature of employment in abattoirs requires a high degree of occupational health and safety. So it was critical, according to the manager of the meatworks, that each person being considered for employment would have to satisfy a no-drugs policy. Of the first 30 single, unemployed young people who came forward, 26 said 'We can't meet your drugs policy,' so they went back to being on Newstart. I find that to be unacceptable.

I do not think the Australian taxpayer, a generous taxpayer, would willingly see a third of the nation's expenditure budget going on a person or people who, for their own decision making, for their own recreational satisfaction, choose not to work in a job in which they would be trained and there would be secure employment in a region of one of our states, and not have to work because they do not want to be involved in a process in which they are drug free. As I sat in the general manager's office, I could not help but think of the sort of people who came before us in our inquiries on the matter to do with the movement of people from the paid parental program down to Newstart. I thought to myself: what has gone wrong in this country when fit, able, single young people do not have to work? You would say, 'Well, if a country is so wealthy that you can accommodate these things, everybody is okay.' Well, they are not okay. As Senator Fifield and Senator Siewert have said—and as Senator Siewert has tabled—it is not okay.

What is okay is that those who need it most—those single parents who are struggling and making decisions between putting shoes on their children's feet or feeding their children or themselves or paying their electricity and other utility bills—should be at the top of the priority order. We saw the circumstance during 'Rudd 1' as opposed to 'Rudd 2' when he as Prime Minister ran around the countryside in December 2009 throwing out $900 cheques for the specific purpose of avoiding Australia being in a recession. You will recall he ran around in March 2010 doing the same thing with $1,200 cheques at a time when we should have been putting in place expenditures and allocations that would have ensured we would have maintained into the future the living standards and lifestyles to which we are accustomed.

I reflect on other committees we sat on and, when we asked people what they did with the $900 cheques, they fell broadly into four categories. Some people saved the money, so therefore it did not help with the economic stimulus. When I sat on the Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform—Mr Wilkie's committee—and went to Tasmania, I sat there and listened to witnesses. This was in the gambling reform hearings associated with poker machines. This fellow said to me, 'If you want to know where all our money went, Senator, you just have to go to the casinos, the pubs and the clubs, because whatever $900 cheques we got go straight into the pokies.' That was the second of the two. The third was Chinese television sets, as Harvey Norman and others all told us.

The fourth is this: Senator Birmingham—through you, Madam Acting Deputy President—if you want to go back and review the Friday night those payments were made and the Friday night when the $1,200 cheques were paid in March 2010, you will see an incredible spike in attendances at the accident and emergency centres of the major hospitals around Australia—an unexpected spike the first time around. They were totally and utterly caught unawares, as I was told by a nursing sister who attended the Royal Perth Hospital. They had to bring staff in urgently.

Those are the four categories of spending those payments went to—the $900 cheques. When you have a look now at the fact that we have gone from a $40 billion surplus to a $300 billion debt and at the fact that we are paying $1,000 million a month interest on that debt at the moment, it causes one to weep when you see that the saving over five years from this measure—and Senator Siewert has quite correctly identified the harshness of this measure—equates to 10 days of interest on the debt as a result of the waste of this government, which commenced under now Prime Minister Rudd.

We do need to see a realignment. I return to the electorate of Murray, to again tell a story. I am by no means demeaning those who have come into this country, but I simply use this as an illustration of where we have got it wrong. There was a very proud African community in that particular electorate. They were all large families getting jobs and keeping jobs—everything was fine. The member for Murray became aware that a lot of these people, in fact, were stopping working. So she inquired as to why they might have stopped working. It was because another group had come into that community and were making no attempt to actually get employment and, with large families, they were enjoying significant income from the government. We have to have a scenario in place in this country again where we encourage employment, particularly when you look at agriculture throughout Australia, where we now have to rely on backpackers not just to attend to fruit picking but to work on farms—harvesting crops et cetera. You say to yourself, 'How is it in this country that people who are able to work, where there are jobs available for them, do not take those jobs?'

I conclude my remarks, if I may, on the circumstance now confronting us with refugees, who themselves are not allowed to work. The policy of this coalition is, firstly, to have a circumstance in which those people remain safely in their own countries but, secondly, if they are here, to process them quickly and, thirdly, to allow them to do some work. This is the community of people who, as yet, have not been processed and are not allowed to work. It was on 14 August last year that the government brought in its so-called no-advantage test over those people who are in refugee camps—rotting, as many of them have been, sometimes for up to two generations. The solution was to bring in the no-advantage test. Senator Cash, the shadow parliamentary secretary in this area, tells me that there are now some 19,000 people who have not yet had the opportunity to lodge a claim to be processed. So therefore they cannot work.

In the concluding comments, if I may, I agree with and support Senator Fifield. We will not oppose this legislation. Should we be honoured with government, I appeal to all sides of the chamber to work towards a scenario in which that social security and welfare budget is allocated where the priority is highest. I have no doubt it is the community of people about whom we are speaking at the moment.