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Monday, 25 February 2013
Page: 649


Senator MILNE (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (10:32): I rise today to make comment on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support Bonus) Bill 2012. As my colleague Senator Siewert has just said, it provides for a totally inadequate supplementary payment for recipients of Newstart, youth allowance, parenting payment, Austudy and Abstudy. A supplement of $210 a year, paid in two instalments of $105 in March and September, is completely and utterly inadequate and unacceptable. As my colleague has just said, $4 a week is a complete affront to the idea of equality of opportunity in Australia. Oscar Wilde once said:

… to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.

That is precisely what the coalition are doing by saying they will not support it at all and what the government is doing by saying that $4 a week is enough.

I want to congratulate my colleague Senator Siewert for the huge amount of work that she has done in recent years to try and bring the absolute inequality that is going on in Australia to the public eye. She took on the Newstart allowance and, through trying to live on that allowance herself, was able to highlight all of the issues associated with trying to provide for transport, trying to clothe and feed a household and trying to pay the disproportionate amount of money that goes to paying rents in a society where the cost of renting is now so high and so extreme—particularly in communities affected, as we have seen in Senator Siewert's state of Western Australia but also elsewhere in the country, by the huge boom in the mining industry—that it is out of the reach of many people. That is why the poorest are becoming homeless.

We really need to ask this question: what sort of society do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a society which has a growing gap between the rich and the poor—which of itself then ends up with a society with lowered life expectancy, poorer health outcomes and less educational opportunity for some because a few want to maintain the wealth that they have to the exclusion of others? I found it particularly obscene when I heard last week that Marius Kloppers had left BHP, taking $75 million on top of his wage with him as he left the company—$75 million. This is a company, BHP, which only paid $77 million in the mining tax to the Australian people for the Australian people's ore that BHP was making its huge profits with. The fact that BHP could write off its poor judgement in terms of its African operations in Mozambique, for example, and use that not to pay an appropriate tax in Australia just shows you that we have both a government and a coalition who are bending over backwards to facilitate the mining industry to the detriment of those in Australia who are struggling—and there are many of them. I draw attention to the single parents. Taking away that support from single parents because there was a hole in the budget because the mining tax was not paying and there was a refusal to fix it, letting Marius Kloppers walk away with $75 million whilst taking the money out of the pockets of single parents, is surely an affront to what a decent country would look like and to making sure you address this issue of equality of opportunity.

Over the weekend there had been much discussion about the implementation of the Gonski review and trying to get a fair amount of funding into the schools which are the most disadvantaged. Once again, the Greens have said: 'Yes, we will pass Gonski. We want this new funding formula which is fairer to go through, but we would like to see priority given to the funds going first to the most disadvantaged public schools.' If we were a society that was actually genuine about providing equality of opportunity to all children, regardless of the socioeconomic background from which they come and regardless of where they live, then we would be supporting such an amendment. But, instead of that, we have got the Treasurer, Mr Swan, who has said that making the country a fairer place is a priority for him but we have to create the wealth to sustain these programs—and of course he was referring to all the support payments. Well, he is making the country a less fair place by not creating the wealth that there is the opportunity to create at the moment through the mining tax, by not choosing to go after that, and instead trying to take money away from single parents and coming in here with a bill which gives a mere $4 extra a week—in a restaurant, a cup of coffee—for people who are struggling to pay the rent, struggling to put a meal on the table and struggling to get their children back to school.

All this is in the context of people talking about trying to get people who are currently unemployed and on Newstart allowance, or single parents, back into the workforce. This is condemning them to not being able to get back into the workforce, to having to make the choice between maintaining a computer, paying for internet access and so on and actually providing what their children need to go to school. What sort of choice is that for a single parent? Why are we putting people in that position? All of the recent evidence out of the OECD, out of the Gonski review, shows that it is the educational background of parents that is a significant factor in their aspirations and their ability to achieve. That comes down to income inequality. Income inequality has been rising in Australia since the mid-1990s, effectively, and the social inclusion report that came out last year gave evidence to that effect.

The government stand up and talk about Labor values, but the action that they take is the antithesis of those Labor values. They are refusing to raise the money from the mining industry at a time when it is making megaprofits and instead are cutting payments to single parents and then coming in here with a bill which says, 'We will give a $4 a week rise in payments.' This is nowhere near enough. It holds up a mirror to statements about values. If you are serious about social justice and go out into your electorate and talk to people—to single parents, to young people who are on the youth allowance, to people on Austudy and to people on ABSTUDY—you will soon find that what we are saying is true: they are struggling to pay the rent and to put food on the table. They are asking the question: 'Why is it that we are being so repressed and put down in a society which is becoming wealthier by the minute, where the number of wealthy people is growing and the gap between the rich and the poor is expanding?'

The fact is that the middle is being hollowed out. People are either being pushed down or getting into the higher income brackets. The middle is being hollowed out, just as has occurred elsewhere in the world. President Obama stood up and said that this gap between the rich and the poor in America was a critical issue for the wellbeing of that society, and he campaigned on it in the election. I am not suggesting that Australia is anywhere near as unequal as the United States. It is not, and I am very pleased that it is not. That is because we have a long tradition of trying to maintain an equal opportunity for all, regardless of where they have come from or the personal circumstances in which they currently live. That is an aspiration which I think most people, if you stopped them in the street, would say that they want to see delivered and that they think they could be proud of. But the reality is that it is not the case. Senator Siewert has demonstrated that it is not, by trying to live on Newstart. As she indicated in her speech, the price of the goods that she bought during her time on Newstart has increased by $7 a week. This bill provides a mere $4 increase, so people are still falling well and truly behind. This is nowhere near what it needs to be.

It is not just the Greens who are saying this. It is not just the social justice groups and the people out there in volunteer organisations who are providing support to people in the community who are saying this. It is not just those people in the non-government sector who are saying this. It is also the business community who are saying it, who are out there agreeing that Newstart should be increased by $50 a week and that putting people below the poverty line is unacceptable in Australia.

So where is the resistance? Who are the people out in the community backing the idea that you should not get people living on Newstart out of poverty? Who are the people advocating that we do not get people living on youth allowance out of poverty? People living on youth allowance now suffer on $170 below the poverty line. Who are the people saying that they ought not to be brought up to at least getting above the poverty line? I have not found anyone out there arguing that. But effectively that is what this parliament is doing. That is what the government is doing and that is what the coalition is doing. The coalition is doing it by saying: 'No increase. They should stay below the poverty line. The miners should not pay any mining tax at all. It is fine for Marius Kloppers to walk away with $75 million and it is fine for youth allowance students to live $170 below the poverty line.' Well, I do not think it is fine. I think it is despicable and I do not think it augurs well for the long-term health and wellbeing of our society.

But, equally, the government are pretending that $4 a week is some kind of genuine attempt to address inequality of opportunity, to address the fact that people are living in poverty and children are living in poverty. It is not enough. How many backbenchers, how many members of this Senate and how many people in the parliament are already paying for breakfast programs in our schools? I can tell you that a lot of them are, Mr Deputy President, and you probably are as well. I can tell you that around Tasmania a number of members of parliament are paying for breakfast programs in schools because they know that students are turning up hungry.

That is something that people need to take on board. Children cannot learn and cannot achieve to their full potential if they come to school hungry. That is why schools are out developing breakfast programs of nutritious food and asking people to support them. I am very happy to support them, but the point is: how we have got to this? In a society of families and single parent families why are we getting to the point where people have to live with sending their children to school without breakfast? Is $4 per week going to fix that? I do not think so.

It is also about providing nutritious food to students. As we know, children need nutritious food to grow so that they achieve their full physical and mental potential. This is not happening; more and more children across Australia are living in poverty and have poorer health outcomes and poorer educational outcomes, and therefore less ability to get work and less ability to achieve their full potential.

It is not fair; it is not a fair and just society. Nor is this a parliament that cares. If there is one thing you can say about this bill—this social security bill that is giving a mere $210 a year to people on these allowances—it is that this parliament does not care about people living in poverty in Australia. It does not care about the fact that children are going to school hungry and it does not care about unequal health outcomes.

The Greens do care. We do care, and that is why Senator Siewert has developed her own bill to increase Newstart by $50 per week. That will cost about $2 billion a year. We also have the intention to go ahead with this additional Newstart allowance. We know it costs money, but we know that the money is there to be had as well. If the government would get behind us and if the coalition would abandon their cruel and unjust policy of refusing to tax the miners and we actually got the money from the mining tax, we could do the right thing. We could care for people living on Newstart, on youth allowance, on parenting payments, on ABSTUDY and on Austudy. We could care for those people. Surely that is what we want. Long term it is not only good for the people who are given the opportunity to participate in Australian society to their fullest—which is what we would ask—but it is better for our social and community wellbeing as well. When you have less disadvantage you have less anger, disappointment and frustration in the community. You have a more cohesive, happy and optimistic community. And with that you get a happier country.

Everywhere you look around the world you find that the countries that have the narrowest space—the narrowest gap—between rich and poor have the best outcomes as a nation on all kinds of social inclusion—health, education and prosperity outcomes. The more the gap between the rich and the poor widens, the more you get all those social indicators which undermine the health of your society in the long term. This is why the Greens are standing here to say we are prepared to stand up to the miners and to have the mining tax amended so that we can raise the money and block the loopholes. We are able to achieve that.

How much money are we talking about? We had this costed; the proposed changes we were making to increase the mining tax to a 40 per cent rate to fix the loopholes and to tighten up the generous depreciation provisions. That would bring in $26 billion over the forward estimates—$26 billion over four years! On that basis—if you are going to get $26 billion over the forward estimates—why would you not spend $2 billion of that a year to help children and their families to get out of poverty, or to help students struggling on youth allowance to achieve to their best ability in the educational scenarios that they are working in?

These are Australia's children and young people, disproportionately in this category, who are being done down by an unequal system and by a government and a coalition who are not prepared to take on the big miners but who are prepared to keep people in poverty. It is a sad indictment of the way that the society is going that this can be happening and people just sit back and accept it. The Greens do not accept it. We joined single parents out the front of this parliament the last time we were here during the estimates week. Those people had heart-wrenching stories to tell of the choices that they had to make. Far from getting people into work, it has meant that in many cases it has prevented them from being able to take up opportunities for work. It is driving people deeper and deeper into poverty.

I conclude by saying again: advising a man who is starving to eat less is both grotesque and insulting. And that is what both the government and the coalition are doing. In the case of the coalition, it is refusing to give any increase at all in support, and the government is suggesting that $4 per week is somehow fair—is somehow fair!—when the mining industry is walking away with megaprofits and can say goodbye to a chief executive with $75 million in his pocket in addition to everything he has earned over the years in that position. What does that say about the gap between the rich and the poor? The Greens do care, and will continue to argue and prosecute the case for a society which cares about people as well as the environment.