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Monday, 25 June 2018
Page: 6104

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (10:37): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

We are a wealthy country, but almost one in four people in Australia who are in poverty are working full time. That is a statistic that should shame us all. It is getting to the point in Australia where working full time and having a full-time job is no longer a guarantee of security. When you look at the rising costs of housing, the rising costs of energy because we fail to regulate electricity prices and the low wage growth that we've seen over many, many years because our industrial relations laws have tied workers' hands behind their back, you understand how we've ended up in this situation. But, again, I repeat that, when just under one in four people who are living in poverty are working full time, something is wrong with our society. We are heading down the road of becoming a US-style unequal society where the divide between the very wealthy and everyone else continues to grow and grow. It is up to us here in parliament to do something about it.

It is recognised in many other places around the world that 60 per cent of the median weekly wage is a good measure of what the minimum wage should be because it means, if you're working full time and earning the minimum wage, you're likely not to be in poverty. In other words, if you do a full-time week and get at least 60 per cent of the median wage then you probably won't be living in poverty. In the United Kingdom, they have put into law a requirement that their Low Pay Commission, as it's called there, must ratchet up the minimum wage to 60 per cent of the median wage. It's time that we did the same here in Australia. To give people an understanding of what we're talking about, we'd be talking about around $20 an hour for someone who works full time. Most people in this country, I would bet, think it's fair enough that, if you're working a full-time job, you should earn at least 20 bucks an hour.

But at the moment where are things at? Last month the Fair Work Commission increased the minimum wage by 3½ per cent to $18.93 an hour, up from $18.29 an hour. Stepping back, prior to the latest decision the minimum wage was 55.1 per cent of the latest figures for median earnings for full-time workers. When the updated corresponding figures for median wages come out for 2018, if they have grown in line with measly wages growth, the national minimum wage will probably be only 55.6 per cent of the full-time median wage.

The change that's happening isn't transformative. It isn't even incremental. It's ineffective. It's barely noticeable. The gains that the lowest paid workers in this country are granted will be wiped out by rising costs, rendering them almost worthless.

In a rich country like Australia people earning a full-time wage shouldn't be struggling to make ends meet. If you're working full-time and living in poverty, what does that mean for people earning even less, like part-time or casual workers? What does it mean for low-income people, single parents, pensioners or students who are relying on government support from a government that doesn't really support them? What does it mean for the homeless and the long-term unemployed?

It's time for a circuit breaker. It is time for this parliament to act on rising equality in this country.

This bill that I'm introducing, the Fair Work Amendment (A Living Wage) Bill 2018, amends the Fair Work Act 2009 to lift the national minimum wage to a living wage of 60 per cent of the median full-time weekly wage as determined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) will determine the phase-in period, which should be no longer than six years, and will be required to publish a timetable for how we get there, so that it can be phased in over a period of time that will be short enough to make a difference but will be done in such a way that it will not have adverse impacts on the economy. Indeed, in the legislation the Fair Work Commission (FWC) must have regard to matters including reducing inequality, the state of the economy and the circumstances of particular industries and classes of employers. After the timetable for the intended phase-in has been declared the Fair Work Commission (FWC) will continue to conduct annual wage reviews and issue orders annually but will only depart from the planned phase-in if there are exceptional circumstances.

If you go back a decade or two—to around 20 years ago—the national minimum wage was above 60 per cent of median full-time earnings. Working people then weren't necessarily doing great, but things weren't as tough as they are now. But fast-forward to now and things are very different. Inequality is skyrocketing—it's at a 70 year high—housing is unaffordable, insecure work is rising, and underemployment is also stubbornly high. We hear a lot from the Treasurer about unemployment statistics; what he doesn't talk about is underemployment, the number of people who say, 'I am not getting enough hours at work to make ends meet.' We are now in the crisis situation where one in three young people in this country either don't have a job or don't have enough hours of work. The alarm bells should be ringing. The effect of years of neoliberalism and trickle-down economics has slowly but surely shifted power away from workers towards profits and big business in this country.

But I say to everyone who is doing it tough that there are solutions. It requires a bit of political will, but there are solutions. The union movement at the moment recognises this, and the Greens recognise this as well. ACOSS recognises this. Even some business organisations recognise that the gap is growing too much. That's why the Greens are supporting the ACTU's push to change the rules and why for many years now, including today, we've been introducing legislation into this place that would actually change the rules.

I have previously introduced legislation that would extend to workers in the gig economy the right to the minimum wages and conditions that regular employees have, and to give workers 10 days of paid family and domestic violence leave. The Greens led the campaign to protect penalty rates. We went to the election being the only party saying that we'd reverse the decision of the Fair Work Commission. I'm very pleased to hear the opposition this morning introducing legislation to reverse the cuts. I note that they said before the election they'd do exactly the opposite—that they'd just abide by the Fair Work Commission's decision. It shows that, if you want to protect minimum standards in this country, you need the Greens in this place because we lead the charge and then, ultimately, others come around. That's why today I'm introducing legislation to resuscitate the minimum wage, to put a floor under it so that people working full time will avoid living below the poverty line.

Of course there is so much more we need to do to help people in this country doing it tough. We need to lift Newstart and youth allowance. I'm encouraged by reports that, again, off the back of Greens and community organisations campaigning on this for this ages, some other parties in this place might be shifting.

But it's worth reminding ourselves that people are losing faith in politics—and it is no wonder why. It's because, in many respects, we know how to solve problems like growing inequality in Australia, but the political will isn't there from the old parties. It's because our old parties are ruled by backbench dinosaurs and factional war lords and it's because the political class bickers about personality politics while everyday people, in many instances, are working full time but struggling to put food on the table. And it's because this place took years to do things like legislate for marriage equality even though the population wanted it for years and years and were just demanding the politicians get on with it.

Australians want to make sure that egalitarianism does not die in Australia. People in this country want to make sure that Australia is a place where the gap between the wealthy and everyone else does not blow out. So we are ringing the alarm bells here. We are ringing the alarm bells and saying, 'When people work full time but still end up in poverty, something is wrong.' If we lift the minimum wage—in today's figures, it would be around about $20 an hour—then we can help lift people out of poverty and make sure Australia remains an egalitarian society. I commend this bill to the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Rob Mitchell ): Is the motion seconded?

Mr Wilkie: I am delighted to second the member for Melbourne's bill, and I reserve my right to speak.

Debate adjourned.