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Thursday, 10 May 2012
Page: 3108

Senator MILNE (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (12:54): I rise to speak on the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012. The issue here for the Greens is that we put very strongly to the government that we not proceed with the tax cut for big business in Australia because we are a very wealthy country, but we are also an unequal country, and it was time that we started to look at ways in which we could reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in Australia, which is widening. I am very pleased that the government did not proceed with the tax cut for big business. That essentially created the space in this year's budget to provide some, if you like, wealth redistribution.

The Australian Greens' perspective is that we would have preferred to have seen money made available for permanent system-wide improvements. When I say that, I, and the Greens, would have preferred to have seen $5 billion allocated to the implementation of the Gonski review into education. Of that, $3 billion would have gone into public education and we would have seen a huge investment across the country that would have complemented the previous investment in education from Building the Education Revolution funding. I am very aware that that funding led to badly needed new facilities across the country. I have visited many of those in my own state of Tasmania and I have to say that in the case of Tasmania, which is the place I am most familiar with in this regard, the money has been spent in a way that has made dramatic improvements in the amenity of school life for students across the state. That was an infrastructure cost, an improvement in facilities.

If we now implemented a real cash injection into education delivery in Australia we would have the long-term directional reform we need. However, the government has chosen not to do that. Instead it has looked at this particular bonus, which was already there in the budget as a tax rebate to provide support to families for the cost of educating their children. The problem with an income tax rebate is that people who are already on income support are not lodging tax returns and so do not benefit from this available support. When I sought some more information on this it became quite clear that, of the 1.3 million families across Australia who were entitled to access this, one million had either not accessed it or not accessed it in full. Those who had accessed it, a small number in relative terms, tended to be at the top end of the eligible income range, because they are the ones who are more likely to have tax accountants and are more likely to have a better organised way of managing their tax business and their tax receipts. So they are the ones who are able to benefit most from this, when in reality the people who need it most are at the bottom end of the taxable income scale or, indeed, the level of income support—or part-time and so on—they are working on.

I certainly support the view that if we are going to make a payment such as this it be targeted in a way that helps the people who need it most. I am satisfied that the previous way this was being offered, through the tax refund, was a failed policy for the reason I have just mentioned, namely, the people who need it most were the people who were not accessing it, for various reasons.

Another reason people did not access it is that, for many people, buying a new school uniform is not something they would necessarily do. Often they would buy school uniforms from other people, with the result being that they may not get a receipt. Equally, I am aware that the same thing happens, to a degree, with schoolbooks. I am also aware that children of low-income earners and people on income support have not been accessing school trips and school excursions. Unfortunately they require a copayment from the parents and often they cannot afford that.

If the principle that we are coming from as a parliament, and I hope it is the principle we are coming from, is equitable access to quality education, then equitable access has to be enabled. As I indicated before, the Greens believe the $5 billion would have been better directed to the implementation of the Gonski review to complement the Building the Education Revolution investment in infrastructure. The government has chosen not to do that. But this measure does enable a shift in focus, and I am confident that this money now going into the pockets of eligible Australian families will go to supporting their children in school.

Everyone in this parliament remembers the Howard government years, and everybody remembers the introduction of the baby bonus. I just heard Senator Cash speaking at length on how terrible it is that this money is not targeted. The baby bonus was also just a cash payment, and it is well-known across Australia that it became nicknamed the plasma bonus, because in many cases people spent the money upfront on some piece of capital equipment that they chose to purchase at that time. That is why there have been significant changes in the way that benefit has been paid over the years. It is gross hypocrisy for the opposition to argue about this, because if two people ever characterised the notion of buying votes with cash splashes it was the former Treasurer, Peter Costello, and the former Prime Minister, John Howard. They made an art form of it. They bought election after election with cash splashes, so let us not hear any more hypocrisy from the coalition on this. As the Prime Minister said in the House yesterday, a person gets a baby bonus for a baby and then the baby grows up and goes to school and they require money to enable equitable access to education. The leader of the coalition says, when asked why the baby bonus is different from the education bonus, 'It just is'. There is no principle and no policy difference, and it is ridiculous for the coalition to try to maintain the position it is currently taking.

In the midst of the mining boom we can afford to prioritise education for our children. Public funding of schools as a percentage of GDP shows that Australia is lagging the OECD average of 3.5 per cent, sitting at three per cent, while the best funded nations include Norway with 5 per cent, Iceland with 4.9 per cent and Denmark with 4.2 per cent—which is another reason why the Greens would have preferred this money to go towards a major injection into the Australian education system. The Greens will continue to advocate for an immediate investment in our public education sector.

We also want to talk about this benefit in the broader context of wealth redistribution in Australia and reducing the gap between the rich and the poor. We are concerned that the government has gone ahead with this schoolkids bonus bill. There is the added benefit through family tax benefit A but, unfortunately, there is nothing that is in any way equivalent for people on Newstart. We know that the most vulnerable people in Australia right now are those who are looking for work and are on income support. Frankly, I have to say the most vulnerable Australians getting Newstart needed another $50 a week at least. We are asking people to live on $244 a week. My colleague Senator Siewert did that for a week and, in some very passionate and excellent speeches, has said she does not know how people do it, given the cost of accommodation particularly as well as food and transport. I think $210 a year, which is what the government has made available—it will be indexed—is an insult to people who are struggling to survive. A 50c increase per day is not enough—it is barely enough for one cup of coffee a week. When we look at the most vulnerable and we add onto them the 100,000 single mums who are also going to have part of their benefit taken away in this budget, I would like to have seen an overall assessment of all of these different payments, working out how with the quantum of money across the levels of support we could have better supported those at the bottom end. As for the single mums, I make this point very strongly: if you are saying that you take the benefit away because you want people to seek work, the issue for me in rural and regional Australia—and every senator who is familiar with rural and regional Australia will know this—is that first of all you cannot assume that the jobs are out there in the first place; second, you cannot assume that there is any public transport or capacity to access transport to get to the jobs even if they do exist; and, thirdly, you cannot assume that there is going to be access to quality childcare. So you are penalising people who do not have alternatives, who do not even have the ability to go and get a job, let alone get to that job—and, even if they could get to it, they do not have access to quality child care.

The Treasurer made a point of saying that this was a budget of the fair go, that this was a budget which was attempting to redistribute wealth in order to benefit the most vulnerable people in our society. Yet the most vulnerable in Australia, single mothers on Newstart in this case, have not been supported in an appropriate way. Cutting back on foreign aid also says that you are building a surplus on the back of the poorest people in the world. So we are building a surplus on the back of the poorest in the world and we are not distributing fairly—we are not distributing to the most vulnerable and the most needy in the Australian context.

The Greens are supporting the schoolkids bonus because it is a way of making sure that payments are better targeted, going to those at the lower end of the income scale and to income support recipients—giving them support in educating their children. But we would have preferred a systemic change, with investment in the implementation of the Gonski review—$3 billion into public education across the country—and income support increased for the most vulnerable. That is how we would have dealt with this issue.

On the issue of Newstart, my colleague Senator Siewert told the Senate yesterday that she has met single mothers and older workers who have been retrenched, young men and women, people living with a partial disability or with mental illness, and migrants struggling with language issues. All of these people come into the category of most vulnerable and have some of the greatest barriers to overcome to get into the workforce. But not one of them said to her that Newstart is what they want for their lives or their family. What they want is to be able to improve their own lives and those of their families and communities by participating in the workforce to a greater extent.

The Greens are supporting the schoolkids bonus. We do think it is better than a tax rebate, but in the broader context we would have liked to have seen system-wide and permanent change to the funding of public education. If you had that, a lot of the charges that schools are increasingly having to impose on parents could actually be covered out of the schools' own funding. It has been quite a while since I was teaching, but I have many friends who are still in the teaching service and they all say that, over the years, there has been a massive cost shift to parents because the public education system simply cannot offer the same level of opportunity it used to—the public schools just do not have the money to do it.

Fundamental system-wide change is what is required to achieve permanent improvement in the public education system—whereas the schoolkids bonus, in my view, is a stopgap measure. I recognise that it is ongoing and I recognise that it will be helpful in some cases, but I do not think that it is the kind of move which will inspire the nation to think that there has been a genuine investment in better educational opportunity and in universal access to high quality education. That could have occurred if the quantum the Greens saved the government could have been looked at differently—to make sure it was even better targeted to support the most vulnerable.