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Meeting the challenges of working families, a speech to the Labor Council of New South Wales, Sussex St Sydney, 6 pm Thursday 8th July 1999



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MEDIA RELEASE

Wayne Swan, MP

Member for Lilley

Shadow Minister for Family and Community Services

 

 

Meeting the Challenges of Working Families

 

A Speech to The Labor Council Of New South Wales, Sussex St Sydney,

6pm Thursday 8 th July 1999

 

 

It’s great to be here in Sydney tonight. In the last 6 months I have travelled from the Sunshine Coast through the Tweed, Maitland, Bendigo, Adelaide, and Perth. Today I was up in the Hunter talking to people who are about to feel the brunt of the BHP closures.

 

There is a lot of uncertainty up there at the moment as thousands of workers contemplate what their future and their families’ future will be in just a couple of months time.

 

The job losses will undoubtedly have a big effect on the community up there and they need support. The Federal government in particular has a responsibility to help the workers, their families and the community to manage.

 

It will come as no surprise, I’m sure, that the Howard Government up until now has been less than helpful. No one expects the government to deliver a miracle, however it is fairly reasonable to expect that they act with reasonable speed on issues that require an urgent response. Despite the Howard Government’s supportive language, its actions to date show it does not care.

 

And now we have a further assault on social security payments by the Minister for Employment Services Tony Abbott. He has now totally exposed himself to the charge of all talk and no trousers by signalling a further crackdown on the unemployed - but you guessed it, with not one extra investment in the programs needed to reduce dependence.

 

This is public policy, conservative style - get Mr Reith to work on cutting your wages, at the same time as Mr Abbott works on cutting social security, all the while Senator Newman sits and fiddles while more and more children are plunged into poverty. And meanwhile the Prime Minister is running around telling Australia just what great things his government ‘can do’.

 

I’ll tell you what they ‘can do’. They ‘can’ cut your wages. They ‘can’ cut your social security. They ‘can’ sit idly by while more of our children fall behind.

 

This is a government which is the very opposite of ‘compassionate’. They care not one jot for the unemployed, or the worker made redundant, or the mother struggling to balance work and family, or for all those 800,000 children that are raised in jobless households.

 

It doesn’t matter where you go in outer suburban or regional Australia, you can’t help seeing that our opponents in the Coalition don’t care about many sections of our community and as a consequence are alienating voters.

 

Their crisis is the Labor Party’s opportunity - we have to seize the opportunity and take up the challenge to win over unhappy and disenfranchised voters.

 

It is clear the next Federal election will be won or lost in Queensland and New South Wales, particularly in outer metropolitan and regional QLD and NSW. Here, there are at least 21 marginal Coalition seats to be had.

 

We need to focus on the disillusioned vote that went to the minor parties, like the Democrats and One Nation, in QLD and NSW at the last federal election.

 

Minor parties polled 22.9 % in the House of Reps in Queensland, and 20.4% in New South Wales, and it was much higher in some outer metropolitan and regional areas.

 

There is a great deal of disillusionment out there. People are disillusioned with main stream political parties and their ‘so called’ solutions and their ‘so called’ excuses for the struggles that families face on a daily basis.

 

Faith in politicians and the political process has never been lower. The media feeds this cynicism of course. It’s not that people have given up on government. They still desperately want a government that gets the job done. It’s just that they are sick and tired of the litany of excuses for positive action - excuses that this government has turned into an art form.

 

There has been a public discussion of what Labor must do to build a winning coalition at the next federal election.

 

The government would dearly like to paint the Labor Party into a corner when it comes to talking about what sort of coalition we need to form in order to win. They would like to manoeuvre us into a position where we appeal to just one section of the community.

 

The coalition we need to build is one of working class people all of whom aspire to have higher incomes, and one of middle class people who are struggling to maintain their standard of living or better it. We must recognise that just as many Australians h ave done very well over the last five years, so too have many slipped behind. We need to embrace an ever widening distribution of needs and aspirations, and we must do it not by pitting one group against another - the Liberal approach - but by appealing to a mass audience.

 

We must recognise that it was disillusionment with mainstream political parties and general economic and social hardship, not racism or guns, that motivated much of the trend to the minor parties of late.

 

Technological change, transformations in the workplace, social change, and savage cuts to services has left this group fatigued and bewildered.

 

This group will respond to strong government, which is focused on jobs, families, a fair tax system and the delivery of basic services, like health and education.

 

Unfortunately the GST has now passed. It’s a tax we don’t have to have and can’t afford to pay. It is the most fundamental attack on the security of Australian families in the history of this country.

 

It’s hard to work out who is more arrogant and out of touch - John Howard, Meg Lees, or Tim Fischer.

 

The Democrats went to the last election saying they would keep the bastards honest, instead they conceived a bastard of a tax in a shotgun wedding with the Coalition.

 

John Howard says Australians will forget the GST at the next election - They won’t forget. If Howard thinks he can create a world political first then as Michael Caton, from the movie ‘the Castle’ says, ‘he’s dreamin’ .

 

There is only one political party in this country that is truly in touch with community feeling on the tax issue - and that’s Labor. But it is not enough to just campaign on the GST, we must have an alternative agenda.

 

Those disillusioned voters are particularly concerned about security. However insecurity extends well beyond the circumstances of their employment (security is also about personal safety, educational opportunities and peace of mind provided by a sound public health system). Security also extends to the critical issue of family policy - putting in place a public policy framework that supports families and allows parents to provide the opportunities that every child deserves.

 

A lack of security and opportunity for them and their families is what drives their political disaffection. Those who feel under social and economic pressure resent those who enjoy security, because those who enjoy security are seen as elite and privileged. It is this elite that is pushing for the anti-family GST.

 

But before I talk about the GST I’d like to talk about the governments claims of promoting and facilitating, through its ill-conceived industrial relations laws, family friendly workplaces.

 

What is clear to me as I talk to workers is contrary to the Coalition government’s assertions that its industrial relations’ policies are family friendly. It is becoming increasingly difficult for parents to balance work and family responsibilities. Parents are working longer - that is if they have a job and job security - and their family life is suffering.

 

The government has been promoting its policies by saying they offer choice and flexibility for both employers and families.

 

This is just more poll-driven jargon that is turning voters off politics.

 

Of course for most Australians there is no choice about work and family. You have to do both. For the vast majority of families this is the case. What has driven the rise in two income families is the aspiration to have a better life. You can’t argue with that. What governments can do, however, is make it easier for families who are flat out working and juggling family life.

 

This is where the current government has totally failed.

 

Mr Reith cares more about cutting wages than supporting working families.

 

His version of industrial relations reform is to pit worker against boss and turn the workplace into a contest.

 

This is the last thing most Australians want. They want the workplace to be a place of relative peace and harmony. They want to earn their day’s pay and return home to their life. They care more about whether or not they can take time off to care for a si ck child than about unfair dismissal, or secret ballots, or the rest of Mr Reith’s ideological agenda.

 

What we need are positive policies that encourage family friendly developments in enterprise bargaining. We need to be promoting family friendly agreements so that workers can see what can be achieved.

 

Just last week we had an example of an IT firm allowing a female worker to manage her team from home after the birth of her child. Workplaces that are based around technology can afford to do this and we s hould be encouraging it.

 

But these examples are still isolated and so often the preserve of white collar workers. So called flexibility in the workplace is an illusion for many workers if their organisation continues to reward long hours and downsizing while understaffing puts more pressure and stress on the remaining workers. In many instances flexibility in working hours works to the boss’ advantage not families. Any worker who is on call or on split shifts will attest to the strains it places on family life.

 

If we look beyond the government’s rhetoric we start to see some disturbing trends emerging when it comes to families and the workplace. For a start the number of kids in families where neither parent is employed has increased sharply since the Howard Government came into office.

 

Since 1996 the number of kids in families where neither parent works has grown by 96,000. Today, almost one in five children under 15 are in a family situation where neither parent is employed. This is particularly disturbing given the relatively strong levels of economic growth and is concrete proof that the government’s trickle down approach to employment and family policy is not working.

 

Further evidence of a deteriorating balance between work and family is reflected in a reduction in the amount of time that parents spend with their children. Both fathers and mothers are spending less time with their children than they did a few years ago. On average, mothers and fathers combined are spending almost three-quarters of an hour less with their children per day compared to the start of the nineties.

 

Perhaps the most important issue though, is the emergence of a marked division in the workforce that will potentially have a disastrous impact on family life. While people are working longer on average across the board, a close look at the statistics reveals a marked division in workers and work practices. The proportion of people who work 35-44 hours per week has fallen sharply from 42% to 36%. At the same time the proportion who work longer hours and shorter hours has both increased.

 

What this points to is a situation where the workforce is polarising into under-employed, part-time workers on low-incomes, struggling to support their families financially, wanting to work more hours, and overworked full timers suffering fatigue and a dwindling quality of working and family life who want to work fewer hours. While this trend has been occurring for some years it can be said without doubt that the shift has been aided by the current government’s policies.

 

Recently the Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Newman and the Minister for workplace relations, Peter Reith, extolled the family friendly virtues of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWA’s). Their joint statement proclaimed most AWA’s offered at least one family friendly measure. Well big deal. What we should be looking at is not what family friendly measures are in AWA’s but rather what ones are not. While AWA’s recognise the bare minimum award conditions most have disappeared. Those conditions provided guarantees for workers an their families - but they have now gone. Protective clothing, travel allowances, the number of maximum hours worked, rest and meal breaks have, for the most part, gone out the window. This isn’t the way forward.

 

You don’t trade off one necessary benefit for another and count yourself ahead. What the government is forcing workers to do is to choose between benefits. We say that family-friendly workplaces should not come at the expense of safe workplaces, or workpl aces where you get a rest every now and again.

 

What can governments do about quality of life? Encourage employers and unions to bargain for family friendly workplaces - places where you can get time off for family emergencies and caring responsibilities; where you don’t feel guilty about dealing with family issues at work; and employers who understand that by respecting employees’ family needs you increase productivity.

 

We also want workplaces where women can get maternity leave and return to the workforce, where childcare is conveniently located, and where going part-time does not mean sacrificing your career.

 

Sadly, this positive workplace agenda is being lost underneath the current government’s obsession with a divisive workplace. There is a better path to productivity than the one Mr Reith walks. I’m sure that what most families want out of the workplace is a fair and decent wage and an environment that is understanding and accommodating of family responsibilities.

 

And the GST will make it worse. The GST is a tax on consumption. Families, by their nature consume the most and it will come as no surprise that the GST will hit them hardest, especially in regional and rural areas where the tax will go onto a higher base. Every time a family has another child they ratchet up a tax bracket. They can’t stop buying new shoes or paying bus fares because some theorist thinks it is a good thing to shift the tax burden from income to consumption.

 

The tax cuts offered are not targeted to low and middle income families - they’re tilted to high-income earners without kids. High-income earners will gain most under the GST, but that of course will come as no surprise to the government, they are the richest cabinet in history. They believe in the greatest good for the smallest number.

 

Despite their inane crowing that they represent middle Australia, it turns out 50% of the coalition front bench are family trust holders. This compares to just 2% of the general population.

 

This government is about creating the biggest indirect tax hike on families in Australian history, so when it comes to families this PM is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

 

They can’t masquerade as representing average families or battlers. They’re totally blinded by their privilege. How could they understand the impact of the GST on the household budget of a struggling family, given their lifestyles?

 

Families are struggling and as Professor Peter McDonald (from ANU) recently observed, the agenda of the Howard government has worked against families, not for them:

 

“What’s been happening is there has been cutbacks to family service, the rolling back of family funding and supporting people who have children. We are giving the message that if you have children it is your responsibility, instead of saying that children are a social good and are our future therefore our community should be supporting children.”

 

Families are facing an uphill battle. It is more expensive to raise kids now than at any time in the past and the GST will make it impossible for many.

 

We’re now getting into a situation where families are finding more and more barriers being erected that are providing a disincentive to have children.

 

So how can we go about addressing this problem?

 

The key lies in providing support and assistance to f amilies.

 

Prominent Australian experts such as Professors Peter McDonald of ANU and Bob Birrell of Monash University have expressed concern that the falling level of assistance to women to move into and out of work, such as childcare, will lead inevitably to falling fertility rates here in Australia.

 

We need to provide more support to families. The Howard government has been heading in the wrong direction. The conservatives have not been listening. They have not been up to the task of providing resources at the critical early stages of life, particularly in the first three years, where families need the most help and where we can make the most difference.

 

Governments have been applying band-aids rather than attacking the root causes.

 

The current Howard government, for all of its rhetoric, has not delivered for families. The Prime Minister has created a massive social deficit, presiding over $2 billion in cuts to families and community services, particularly in childcare.

 

They talk a lot about families and family values, but actions speak louder then words.

 

Just a couple of weeks ago the Prime Minister launched his ‘vision’ for families ‘Towards a National Family Strategy’. It was manifestly underwhelming and yet another example of a conservative government that won’t put its money where its mouth is.

 

Howard provided no extra funding. He re-announced the budget allocation of just $5 million per annum extra for marriage and parenting programs. This pitiful amount represents just 0.0083% of the total $6 billion per year cost of marriage breakdown.

 

The Howard Government believes in an individualistic, every-man-for-himself philosophy that all conservatives stand for. Their philosophy undermines ‘traditional values’ like responsibility, sharing, sacrifice, family and community. Their approach leads to the weakening of family values which we see all around us.

 

Families need positive support not punishment. I recently outlined new directions for Labor’s family policy.

 

In that speech I argued that governments needed to develop a life-cycle approach to the development of family policy, recognising what families with very young children need is very different from what families with adult teenagers need.

 

I argued for more flexibility in the social security system so that one parent can remain at home when children are young. I argued for national parenting programs, to assist parents to deal with the challenges of bringing up children. I argued that Labor’s tax credit was exactly what working families needed to take some of the financial pressure off and to provide some real incentive to work.

 

This isn’t just good public policy its good politics.

 

There is an electoral dividend to be earned in decisiveness and a willingness to intervene in a way that takes into account the communities interests.

 

The Australian Labor party needs to craft a message to disillusioned voters in terms of both style and substance which addresses their insecurity.

 

Labor’s strategy must therefore be to demonstrate that we have no intention of retreating to the margins. Our electoral support in the cities has largely been maximised and while seeking to retain that support we must win back former Labor voters living in city fringes and regional areas. We need to target the families and individuals that have become disenfranchised by the lack of opportunity their circumstances and the government has limited them to.

 

It is these people who will be receptive to an agenda that puts back resources into health, education and government services and finds new ways to support individuals and families who are feeling vulnerable and insecure.

 

 

jy  1999-07-13  14:20