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Tuesday, 3 June 2003
Page: 15867

Ms GEORGE (5:45 PM) —I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004. I think we all recognise that we are fortunate to live in a rich and affluent country—a country that has rightly been recognised internationally as the land of a fair go. The government is lucky because, at the moment, it is presiding over one of the longest economic booms in our history. We have had 45 quarters of economic growth since 1991, averaging about 3.8 per cent economic growth per year. In such fortuitous economic times, the government's budget should have primarily ensured that the nation's wealth and prosperity were being fairly shared by all in our country. But that is clearly not the case.

In his recent work Where to from here? Fred Argy, a well-noted economist, argues a very compelling case that the changes occurring in our society are threatening Australia's longstanding commitment to egalitarianism. His analysis shows that Australia remains a relatively unequal society, both income wise and wealth wise, compared with most other OECD countries. We have been going backwards as a nation in terms of our commitment to egalitarian ideals. Really, this budget hastens that retreat from the notion of a fair go.

When I was growing up, many in similar circumstances to mine were able to succeed in life regardless of parental means or family background. Regrettably, that is not the case anymore. This budget is squeezing those families—the average Australian families who have con-tri-buted to our economic prosperity—and it is not rewarding them for their contribution and their efforts. The budget failed to ensure that prosperity was being shared equally and fairly, and I think that is shown in a number of key indicators. Structural unemployment in our count-ry remains far too high. The distribution of employment opportunities has become more unequal and is a problem in many regions such as mine. There are far too many Australians and their children living in poverty. The divide between rich and poor is growing and, regrettably, intergenerational poverty is becoming entrenched in many areas of our nation, including in my own.

This government has turned a blind eye to this growing inequality. The government's economic agenda, as manifested in its budget, is devoid of such equity considerations. In my view, there are no constructive responses to the fundamental problems centred on this growing divide between the affluent and the poor. Fred Argy captures this divide and explains it in these terms in his work:

In today's Australia, one sees confident, job-rich, knowledge-rich and asset-rich households, often with two incomes and childless, who thrive on the challenge of uncertainty.

But one also sees a large number of households with unemployed, under-employed or low-paid workers who are under-educated, asset-poor and ill-equipped to compete in a capitalist jungle.

Furthermore, an increasing proportion of Australian children are to be found in these latter households.

This budget demonstrates that the Howard government is blind to the needs of the disadvantaged, the poor, and low- and middle-income earners. The ambitions of many families to give their children a better future are being thwarted by an increasing lack of opportunities for them. There is little joy in this budget for the large number of families I represent in the electorate of Throsby. Almost 30 per cent of the families in Throsby—some 8,642—had a weekly income of less than $500 according to the most recent census data. The median family weekly income in Throsby is around $860 before tax. The families in my electorate are typical Australian families.

The budget does little to address their needs or their priorities, nor, importantly, to relieve them of the financial pressures that they are suffering. They understand and see through the paltry and cynical gesture of a $4 tax cut, which will make no difference to them—particularly as, at the same time, the user-pays philosophy intrudes into their overall living standards by the extra pressures that will face families in medical and education costs. What is clear—and I find this in Throsby—is that for an increasing number of Australians work is no longer a protection against poverty. There are now one million Australians who have some form of paid employment but not enough income to lift them above the poverty line. The government's budget has no positive proposals to address the growth in precarious employment and job insecurity. Full-time employment is in decline everywhere and any new employment opportunities are increasingly in part-time and casual work—much of it, of course, low paid.

The government is intent on pursuing its agenda of deregulating the labour market and challenging whatever protections the union movement historically has been able to provide those vulnerable workers. This government recently denied the lowest income earners in our communities the chance to have a minimum weekly wage increase of $24.60 to bring their minimum weekly wage to $456 before tax. Yet the same government turns a blind eye to the greed and excesses of the corporate sector. Not only that, but it slugs the taxpayers that I represent millions of dollars each year to pay for the golden handshakes that are bound at the top end of the market.

The divide between the rich and poor in Australia is captured in the following wage comparisons that I want to bring to your attention. In 2002 the income of Australia's top 100 CEOs grew by an average 38 per cent—in a year. Their average annual salaries increased from $1.45 million to $2 million. In other words, the average weekly income of the top 100 CEOs, $38,461, is far greater than the minimum annual wage of $25,000 that was being sought by the ACTU and vigorously opposed by this government. Almost 30 per cent of families in my electorate have to survive on less than $26,000 a year—and try raising a family on that. This budget provided no relief from the tax burdens faced by these families. The tax cut that came with the GST has long since gone but the GST is still there, day in, day out. Families are under record debt in Australia. Household debt has doubled and credit card debt has tripled. There is little incentive for families, with 860,000 of them, according to the most recent data, losing more than 60c in each additional dollar due to the combined effect of taxation and the clawback of social security and family benefits.

An increasing number of families I represent are slowly sinking under the weight of an unfair tax system, unpaid or overtaxed overtime and a government induced family payments debt which is nothing short of scandalous. I will repeat that: the family debt payments that many families have been afflicted with are nothing short of scandalous. It is an administrative nightmare that the government has done nothing about. The family tax debt debacle has been the subject of a lot of public anger and anguish, with nearly 700,000 families hit with bills for overpayments last year—and in the overwhelming majority of cases the families did the right thing and informed Centrelink immediately of any change in family circumstance.

In the latest government fiasco to hit the average family, it has now been revealed in the last couple of days in Senate estimates that at least 25,000 parents were denied an average $1,500 in entitlements for their children thanks to the tricky fine print attached to the family tax benefit. I say `tricky fine print' because a lot of the people who have raised concerns knew nothing about the requirement that the benefit be attached to filing the tax return within one year.

I will bring to your attention one such family in my electorate, Patricia and Rick Gaggin. Mr Gaggin is a small business owner. This family is owed $4,186.69. This money has been denied them despite their being granted an extension by the Australian Taxation Office to lodge their returns beyond the cut-off date of June 2002. What we are seeing is one government department approving the lodging of late tax returns at the same time as another government department uses some tricky fine print to deny struggling families a substantial amount of money.

An amount of $4,186 might not sound a lot to the Minister for Family and Community Services but let me assure you that, when the Gaggin's are bringing in $30,000 a year, $4,000 is one almighty sum of money and it is their right to receive that benefit. This miserly act on the part of the minister contrasts starkly with the $16,000 recently spent on fine china for the Lodge, let alone the $120,000 spent on the wine bill and the extravagance of the four-night stay in Rome which cost $45,000, more than most families in my electorate earn in a decent hardworking job over a whole year. It is an absolute disgrace.

It is frightening to read that key national charities report that growing poverty among workers is fuelling demand for crisis services. I have been following the Senate inquiry into poverty and financial hardship and I find the submissions made by organisations like St Vincent de Paul and Mission Australia mirror what is happening in my community. Services are stretched and there are increasing numbers of people coming to look for emergency assistance, including increasing numbers of families who have one parent in paid employment. The government knows that too many fellow Australians are hurting but chooses to be blind to their needs.

Welfare agencies across Australia assisted 2.4 million people unable to make ends meet in 2002, a 12 per cent increase over the previous two years. ACOSS, the national organisation, has reported that over 180,000 people did not receive the help they sought—a jump of almost 20 per cent. In Australia today there are around 2.5 million people living in poverty. One in six of our nation's children fall into that category. While academics might argue about how one defines poverty and what the strict definitional term should be—whether it should be based on median or average income—these esoteric arguments cannot obscure the fact that the number of Australians living in poverty is growing and now encompasses people who have some form of paid employment.

This government, as the budget shows, has an all-abiding belief in market forces. But market forces are unable to solve this deep rooted problem of inequality that is confronting our nation and which this government has turned a blind eye to. The budget also fails to deal constructively with the problems of unemployment and particularly with the plight of the long-term unemployed. I raise this issue because in my electorate the average rates of unemployment are higher than the national average. It is a sad indictment of a country as wealthy and as prosperous as ours that in some suburbs in my electorate youth unemployment rates are around 30 to 40 per cent.

Despite high economic growth and the fortuitous economic times that this government was bequeathed from Labor, the number of people on the dole for 12 months or more is as high today as it was when the Howard government was first elected to office. Just under 400,000 Australian citizens have been on unemployment benefits for more than a year.

The government's Job Network has, to date, failed to tackle this entrenched joblessness in any meaningful way. If you do not believe me, just look at the Productivity Commission reports that refer to the fact that many of the most disadvantaged long-term unemployed are being `parked' in intensive assistance and are receiving only the `pretence of aid'. The rise in long-term unemployment comes as no surprise to me. Under the government, not only has funding for labour market programs been slashed but they consider these cuts to be some kind of achievement—at least, so boasted the Minister for Employment Services on the public record just a few months ago.

The unemployed in my electorate are facing a bleak future; there is little joy or hope in this budget for them. Not only did the budget fail to provide additional investment for labour market programs; on top of that, the Treasurer predicted a slowing in the rate of employment growth and no substantial drop in the rate of unemployment. So they are not tackling the entrenched problem of long-term unemployment and the Work for the Dole programs in my electorate are not producing sustainable employment outcomes. I, together with a group of concerned citizens and organisations in the Illawarra, have pressed both the government and my party to provide a minimum amount of funding—a small amount of $6 million—so that we can fund a pilot project to create additional apprenticeships in the Illawarra. So far, our pleas for assistance from the government have again fallen on deaf ears, despite the fact, as I have indicated, that rates of youth unemployment as high as 40 per cent are not uncommon in the electorate of Throsby.

I want to conclude by saying that unemployment and growing inequality in our nation are two key national issues, yet the budget fails either to recognise their importance or to deal with them in any constructive or meaningful way. Let me say that life is tough for the average Australian family. Making ends meet on a daily basis is hard enough, but it is even harder to accept that these families' ambitions to give their children a better future are being thwarted by the growing lack of opportunities. Low- and middle-income families are being squeezed by the tax system, by a flawed family benefits system, by increasingly precarious employment and by the lack of support for working parents. What happened to paid maternity leave? What is happening to the families in my electorate who tell me that, if you have a child under two, you can list your name on 30 or 40 agencies without a call back? They are being affected by the insidious philosophy of user pays intruding into basic government services like health and education. They are impacted by cutbacks in public funding with a greater shift of the financial burden onto individuals and their families—as we see very clearly in the so-called reform package in higher education and in what families in my electorate know will be their outcomes as far as the so-called A Fairer Medicare package is concerned. There is nothing fairer about it. The miserable and cynical $4 tax cut will, they know, be given with one hand and taken very quickly with the other.

It is a budget that overall has failed the average Australian family. It has failed to ensure that our nation's prosperity is fairly shared by all. It is a budget that offers little hope or optimism for the large number of families in my electorate who are struggling to survive on less than $500 a week and it offers little hope or joy to the high numbers of unemployed, particularly the youth, who, as I have said, are in suburbs where the rate of youth unemployment is an appalling 30 to 40 per cent. That is not good enough for a country as rich and as prosperous as ours. I regret very much that the Treasurer and the government have turned a blind eye. There are lots of families who are being left behind and it seems the government's response is totally inadequate to deal with their needs, their concerns and their priorities.