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Thursday, 26 June 2014
Page: 4126

Senator CAROL BROWN (Tasmania) (17:03): I, too, rise to speak on the general business motion. Since Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey handed down their first budget we have spoken a lot about broken promises. We have, of course, the Prime Minister's promise that there would be no cuts to pensions, no cuts to health and no cuts to education. Mr Abbott told the Australian people that it was an absolute principle of democracy that governments should not, and must not, say one thing before an election and do another thing after the election. What we have seen is this government and this Prime Minister doing exactly that.

In order to break the promises they made to the Australian people, and the Australian people accepted in good faith, they have had to manufacture a budget emergency. We heard quite a lot of that in Senator O'Sullivan's contribution. I would like to put on the record here today in the words of our shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen, that the Charter of Budget Honesty makes it harder for the new Treasurer to engage in these tricks. So Mr Hockey has gone to extraordinary lengths in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, making an unwarranted and unasked for grant to the Reserve Bank and changing economic parameters and assumptions to double the forecast budget deficit by adding $68 billion to it since the election for the base political purpose of both demonising the record of the previous government and providing an alibi for cuts he always intended to make.

This budget is cruel and it is harsh. It is an attack on the long-held value of fairness—a fair-go for all Australians. It is an affront to Australia's sense of fairness. The measures in this budget are not fair for millions of Australians who will struggle to survive and will be condemned to a life of despair and poverty. It breaks the promise of hope, of fairness, of a future that sits at the heart of our great country. We will not support measures that destroy the fair-go that Australia has been built on and of which we are all justifiably proud—a kind and caring country where people look after each other.

The character of a government is best reflected by its budget. A government's budget tells more about its character, about its priorities and about what drives it than any slogan or glossy brochure ever could. And what this budget tells us about the Abbott government is stark. This is a government that offers no hope and no plans for growth, a government that offers only inequality and unfairness.

In his budget speech Mr Hockey said that the budget 'must always be about people'. This is a galling statement by the Treasurer. This budget is not about people. This budget is not even about debt or deficit or the budget bottom lines. Rather, it is about the twisted values and flawed ideology of the Abbott government. In his budget reply speech, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten, said that we, Labor:

… still believe in an Australia that includes everyone, that helps everyone, that lets everyone be their best, that leaves no-one behind.

This is the Australia that I know, that I work for and that those opposite so easily forget and cast aside. This is the Australia with a sense of fairness and equality at its heart that Labor will always fight for.

In his book Battlelines Mr Abbott writes:

… conservative side of politics normally has to overcome the popular impression that the Labor Party believes in fairness while the Liberal Party just believes in good economic management. In my experience, the Liberals are hardly less passionate about fairness than members of the Labor Party.

On the contrary, Mr Abbott. Mr Abbott's first budget shows that he and his government are hardly passionate about fairness. This budget is not fair, and people are worried. The government knows that people are worried. I am sure that they are receiving the same emails, the same constituent calls, the same letters talking to them asking them to reconsider some of the harsher measures in their budget.

This budget is not fair, and it will leave millions of Australians worse off. The budget is not fair, and that is why people who speak to me are outraged and fearful, and that is why Labor will fight measures in this budget—to ensure that we preserve a fair go for everyone. Those opposite argue that the draconian budget measures are necessary because we are living beyond our means. That is not true. We know that under Labor there was low inflation, low interest rates and around a million new jobs created. We had low debt by world standards when Labor left office. Our net government debt was around 12 per cent of GDP, when other advanced economies around the world averaged 74.9 per cent.

Labor supports responsible savings, and this is what we did in office. In looking at savings measures, Labor always weighs up two considerations: the impact on long-term fiscal sustainability, and fairness. That is because on this side we do not believe that we need to choose between economic development and fairness. Unlike those opposite, we do not think our nation has to choose between growth and being fair. We know that budgets necessarily involve choices. But this is not a choice that we believe has to be made, because it is a false choice. Those opposite have set up this false choice on the basis of false claims, including claims that we are spending too much on welfare. These claims do not stand up. We spend less on welfare than any other country across the OECD except Iceland. If government expenditure is a problem, why would the Prime Minister want to pay wealthy women $50,000 to have a baby—a paid parental scheme that will cost $22 billion? Is that fair?

The Tasmanians I speak to do not believe it is fair. They are worried and scared about what their future and their children's future holds because of the Abbott government's budget. People are shocked by the government's decision to make $80 billion in savage cuts to schools and hospitals. Others are deeply concerned by the vicious cuts to family payments. One mother wrote to me that she feared she would not be able to pay her rent because she would lose $100 a fortnight under the changes to family tax benefit part B. She is distressed that she may not be able to provide a home for her two children, and she knows she will never be able to afford to pay for braces for her teenage daughter. A retired lady emailed me to tell me how the removal of the concessions will affect her and her husband. She gets a part pension and already lives very frugally. She rightly points out that the real impact of this budget is hidden in the detail. She says that the removal of the concessions will be, in her words, 'devastating'.

Perhaps most telling are the letters and emails I have received from Tasmanians saying that while they will not be adversely affected by the budget, because they are on high incomes, they are upset about the treatment of low-income earners and people who rely on a helping hand from the government to survive. They know this is not fair; it is not the Australian way. Those already struggling will bear the brunt of this budget. They will do the Treasurer's heavy lifting. Sick people will have to find an extra $7 for the GP tax every time they go to the doctor. But of course we know that the GP tax payment is not going towards the so-called budget deficit; it is going to the Future Fund. They argue this case, they manufacture a debt emergency, but then they put in extreme, harsh measures that will affect the sick and those who can little afford it, and it is not even going towards the budget deficit. It does not make sense. It can only be because of an ideologically driven meanness; that is all it can be.

People ask how they can afford to take their children to the doctor and, if they have fill a prescription, how they will afford the extra $5 for that. Mr Hockey's attempts to dismiss the impact of the $7 GP tax demonstrates just how out of touch this government really are. They show callous disregard for the financial pressures facing average Australian families. One pensioner wrote to me about the impact of the $7 GP tax. She said she had recently been to the doctor, who sent her for a blood test and then called her back to discuss the results. This led to new blood tests and an ultrasound and another visit to the doctor to get the results. This pensioner said she would have been $42 out of pocket in two weeks. This is what she said:

I would not have spent the $42 on beer or cigarettes. It would probably go towards my power bill or food. I am, however, more concerned that children will not receive the medical care they need because some parents must decide between food and medical treatment.

The GP tax is not fair. Surely the lucky country can do better than this. There should be no choice for parents as to whether they feed their children or take them to the doctor.

It is not just pensioners and people on low incomes who are worried about the GP tax. The Australian Medical Association, which supports some co-payments, is emphatic about the $7 GP tax. The AMA president, neurosurgeon Brian Owler, said of the tax:

The co-payment is unfair and unnecessary. Ideology has pushed this proposal too far. The Prime Minister should step in and scrap this policy.

So, to be very clear, the peak doctors body, the AMA, says 'no' to the GP tax because it is unfair.

The budget is unfair in so many ways because it targets those who can least afford it. People will be faced with difficult decisions that could have a huge impact on their ability to engage in work and education, their health and the opportunities they have to go out and have a meaningful life.

Parents are not telling me that they are going to have to give up a takeaway coffee, but they are worried about being able to buy fresh food, meat and vegetables for their children. People are telling me that going to the doctor or filling a script will come at the expense of other essentials—petrol for the car or money for rent or the power bill. Pensioners are telling me that they will no longer be able to afford a bus ticket to go to the shops or to their neighbourhood centre or to visit friends or relatives. Families are telling me that their children will not be able to participate in school activities and sports. We are talking about people becoming socially excluded from their communities.

Services that provide food and emergency relief are telling me they do not know how they will meet the expected increase in demand for support. It is pensioners who tell me they are going hungry because they cannot afford to buy food as well as pay the rent and have a heater on. We know that pensioners and seniors have nothing to celebrate from this budget.

This budget will slash the current indexation system, which helps pensions keep pace with the cost of living. Had Mr Abbott's new indexation system been in place for the last four years, a single pensioner on the maximum rate would be around $1,500 a year worse off than they are today. Mr Abbott's decision to increase the pension age to 70 by 2035 will mean Australians will have to work longer, and their pension will be significantly reduced when they finally do get to retire. I know many people, especially blue-collar workers, low-income workers and women, will simply not be able to work until they are 70.

When Labor increased the pension age to 67 our decision was supported by a comprehensive review into Australia's pension system. This government has provided no evidence to support an increase in the age pension age to 70. We know that increasing the age pension age to 70 will mean Australia has the highest pension age across the OECD. This budget also abolishes the pensioner education supplement, from 1 January 2015, which is currently $62.40 or $31.20 a fortnight for pensioners undertaking approved study. Seniors who have accumulated modest savings to support themselves in retirement will also be hit by the abolition of the seniors supplement for holders of the Commonwealth seniors health card, after the June 2014 payment. None of these budget changes are good for pensioners or seniors or anyone looking to retire.

Those setting out to start their careers will also be hit unfairly by this budget. In my home state of Tasmania, the changes in this budget to tertiary education hit the University of Tasmania with a massive $30 million cut. Many parents and students have contacted me to say that they will not now be able to go to university, because they simply will not be able to afford it. We know that more than $172 million will be cut from equity funding for low-income students attending university. This will do nothing to help students from low- and middle-income families fulfil their ambition to go to university. They will be discouraged from studying because they will be faced with crippling debts.

This makes a mockery of Tony Abbott's 'learn or earn' mantra. Young Tasmanians already struggle to get a job. Access to higher education not only benefits students but is also important for the development of a more vibrant economy. Without equitable access to higher education, Tasmania will not be able to build a strong and smart economy in the 21st century. Mature age students who want to improve their skills and chances of getting a job will also be faced with higher fees and possible cuts to the subjects being offered. I have had young Tasmanians write to me, including several who already have university degrees but cannot get a job.

Other young people have asked me what happens if they are retrenched. The Newstart arrangements in the budget have people very worried. They are very unfair and harsh on all job seekers under the age of 30. They expect young job seekers under the age of 30 to have no support whatsoever when they look for work. A person aged under 30 who loses their job through no fault of their own will get nothing from this government for six months. They will not receive one cent. At the same time, the government is asking for the same job seekers, who receive no support whatsoever, to look for 40 jobs a month. They get no support and no money—not one cent. So how will they survive? What will they live on? Where will they live? How will they afford to prepare job applications or even get a job interview? Not everyone has a family who can support them for six months.

Contrary to the government's view, young people in Tasmania are not unemployed because they lack skills, qualifications or motivation to find work. There simply are not enough jobs. In parts of my home state, youth unemployment is as high as 20 per cent. That is one in five young Tasmanians who do not have a job. People who are living from fortnight to fortnight are already struggling with the cost of living, and these are the people who are hit the hardest by this budget. It is very difficult to find anyone who will not suffer because of the budget—unless they are wealthy. The budget pain for many has come from the decision to scrap the low-income superannuation contribution. This will mean 3.6 million low-paid workers will lose a yearly tax refund of up to $500. How on earth anyone in the government can say this is a fair budget is beyond me. It is an unfair budget. It is an affront to Australians. (Time expired)