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Wednesday, 13 November 2013
Page: 168

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (12:05): I rise to give my contribution to the address-in-reply. I point out that this is clearly a government that does not understand complex policy issues. It has been so used to three-word slogans to undermine the previous government and to get itself elected that it actually does not understand that Australia is facing many complex policy issues that need a set of well-thought-through policy initiatives. There was no understanding and no mention of the poverty that faces many, many Australians or the fact that our income support system is broken, that people are living in poverty or are being condemned to living in poverty.

It is clear that the government have no grasp of the fact that these are complex issues that need addressing, because they started their term by getting rid of the Social Inclusion Board. This is the very board that was put in place to look at the issues around the most disadvantaged and the most vulnerable people in this country and to looking at the policy levers needed in order to address this very complex program. From the rhetoric that we heard throughout the electorate, we know this government will push more and more social service delivery responsibilities onto the not-for-profit sector.

But it has in fact ended the not-for-profit reform agenda. It has wound up the body that was working on this reform to enable us to have a strong not-for-profit sector and a strong civil society. And, of course, we all know that it is turning its sights on unwinding the most recent reforms in the not-for-profit space, including getting rid of the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission.

Our social services are already struggling to keep up. I undertook a survey of just some of the community service delivery organisations in my home state of Western Australia and found that the burden on those organisations was increasing almost exponentially. There is clearly an expectation on the sector that it is to do more and more but without adequate support and adequate funding, and with more and more people in quite desperate situations. More children are living in poverty.

The Greens understand that poverty is a complex problem, and we understand that barriers to work are not simply a lack of motivation or being geographically removed from where those jobs are. The big items that the government outlined yesterday were, in fact, just recycling their policies from previous terms in government: Work for the Dole, relocation funds and review of child care. Three governments have relied on these solutions and three governments will have failed to address the structural and personal barriers that people who are looking for work continue to face. These are complex barriers that real-life people face in real life.

New information that we got from estimates in May demonstrate that the number of people on Newstart is up 55 per cent from 2007. We know this is partially due to the decade of policies that aimed to push more and more people onto Newstart from parenting payment single and from the disability support pension. The fact is that these numbers are growing—the number of long-term unemployed is growing—and the policies that we have in place to date have not been working.

Despite the punitive regimes of welfare to work, people are still being kept out of the system. Children are being denied the basic support they need and being condemned to live in poverty. Newstart is now so low that it is impossible to live on for any length of time. It is ridiculous to maintain this old approach that it is for the short term when we know people are on it for many years—and that number has gone up sharply as well. Even coalition senators conceded during the inquiry into the adequacy of Newstart last year that it was too low.

Then the coalition seemed at least committed to tackling these barriers to work through better jobs services, training and support and better support for employers. But yesterday what we heard was more of the same: about the dignity of work and the intention of government to get those who are not in work to work on the dole—that is, back to digging ditches and pulling out weeds.

The government's agenda is very shallow here. Again, they have not addressed the complexity of the issues that need to be addressed. It is a great irony of this failure to understand the complexity of this social exclusion in that the government will ensure that more and more people remain in the poverty trap, too poor to afford to maintain their home and their health and living in constant insecurity, literally having to choose between eating and some more personal expenses—say, for example, as people have frequently pointed out to me, getting health addressed and even getting a haircut. These are the true barriers to work.

These are also, of course, barriers to our next generation. One in six children in Australia is living in poverty—strange this was not mentioned yesterday! I would have thought this would have been a priority. In some cases they do not have enough to eat and they are living in cramped one-bedroom flats. Many more are living in families that are only just getting by. This is an insidious form of poverty, where children do not have the ability to participate fully in their schools, they are excluded from extracurricular activities, they are not eating enough and, if they are eating enough, it is often of a poor quality because that is all that can be afforded. They have clothes and shoes that do not fit.

I have told people's accounts in this place on many occasions. Just to quote one mother who was affected by the cuts to single parent payments, when they were dumped onto Newstart, she said, 'I don't buy anything anymore. My son even had shoes that were a size too small and he refused to tell me as he knew I had no money to buy new shoes.' These parents are struggling to care for their families and trying hard to find suitable, stable work under sensible conditions where they can still be able to look after their children. This was not contained in the government's speech about their so-called vision for this country.

Another group that is facing significant pressure is those who find themselves out of work after the age of 45. As I have discussed with a number of people, when it comes to employment 45 is the new 65 if you happen to find yourself out of work. Most of the complaints that the Age Discrimination Commissioner receives are around the area of employment—68 per cent of the complaints in 2011-2012. It is clear that age discrimination is affecting those over the age of 45, and there is a rapidly increasing cohort of those who are unemployed; one-third of the people on Newstart are over the age of 45. This is going to grow.

Older people who are currently unemployed need an opportunity to improve their income and in doing so enable them to live more fulfilling, independent and dignified lives in retirement. These are people who are being condemned to live on Newstart, which we know makes them live in poverty, to the age of 65, and in the future of course it will be 67. And then they retire with nothing. It is urgent that we address this age discrimination and help them overcome their barriers. Offering only subsidised places in employment is not enough. We need to address their barriers to employment and to help them retrain and reskill, and to tackle head-on this issue of age discrimination in our workplace.

Clearly, at the heart of this, our job services and barriers to work need to be addressed, not just for older Australians and those with a disability but for everybody across the board. Our job services are not addressing the complex barriers to unemployment, particularly for the long-term unemployed. I have had so many stories shared with me over the last two years by people who are being pushed into despair and condemned to live in poverty without adequate support so they can overcome those barriers to work. Just telling people they are bludgers, just putting people on Work for the Dole programs will not deliver the outcomes. We are condemning a generation of people who fall into unemployment after the age of 45 to permanent poverty. We are condemning one in six children to live in poverty. We need to ensure that we are taking a caring approach to our society, and that needs to be part of the DNA of our society. It is clearly not in the DNA of the coalition and the new government, if the opening address to the parliament is anything to go by.

Similarly, I am deeply concerned that the government has failed to grasp the challenge of aged care. This is a serious and growing challenge. We know Australia is ageing and that our aged-care system is simply not up to the challenge at this stage. I welcome the commitment to dementia funding. This is something that the Greens identified as a priority and we have spoken at length to the sector about it, but Alzheimer's Australia has identified other key areas as well as an increase in funding for research. We need better home care, better residential care and better respite care. We also need to address the quality of that care. Just yesterday Alzheimer's Australia drew attention to the need to address the quality of residential care and to ensure that that is the norm. This means that we need to be doing more than just investing in research; that is great, but we need to be doing more. In particular, we need to be training our aged-care workers to address the issues around dementia.

That brings me to a great disappointment. After the very significant debate we had on the aged-care agenda last June, when we managed to agree to increase the payments for aged-care workers, who will be needed in significant number into the future, this government is now intent on unwinding that. That will mean that aged-care workers will go backwards. They will not get the wages they are due and we are not going to attract the numbers of workers with the skills that we need in the aged-care sector. That is another cut that is not part of a caring society.

One of the key commitments by the Greens has always been to constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. We have participated in the cross-parliamentary approach to this issue. I participated in the expert panel report, as did members of political parties and the Independents in the last government. We welcome the government's commitment to constitutional recognition. We think that the 12-month deadline may be hard to meet, but we hope we can meet it and we are committed to doing that. But I must emphasise the need for genuine consultation. The expert panel undertook extensive consultation and came up with a set of recommendations that we are confident have support as a result of that consultation process. Any move from these recommendations or substantive changes to them will require more consultation with the community. The Greens will not be supporting any question put that is not supported by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. As we know, any question needs the support of the broader community, but we need the support of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community first. We will be working hard to ensure that we come up with an effective process and that a question we put to the community is one we are confident they will support. We cannot afford to put a question and get a no vote.

I want to turn to some other areas in my portfolio responsibilities touching on agriculture and the marine environments. It is vital that we have a strong and sustainable agricultural system in this country. We were extremely disappointed to hear just last week that the government has gouged out money from Landcare and natural resource management in order to address the ongoing drought. What the government does not get, while it is busy getting rid of the very effective carbon legislation by repealing it, is the link between sustainable agriculture and the need to address climate change. Our climate is changing. One of the first industries that impacts on is agriculture—sustainable agriculture. Agriculture in this country is already being affected by climate change, and I need look no further than out the back door in my state of Western Australia, where we have been coping with the impacts of climate change, a decrease in rainfall and seasonal variation, for a significant period of time. Not only has the government raided Landcare, it has raided drought money out of my home state of Western Australia to transfer to the east, completely ignoring the fact that we are trying to address drought, which is affected by climate change.

If we do not have good land care and natural resource management practices we will not be able to deal with drought; we will not be able to put in place a system to ensure that our agriculture system is drought resilient and to actually drought proof our agriculture. It is such short-sighted thinking. And I must say also that it comes after the government's promise that they would not take any money out of Landcare and natural resource management. Not only have they taken money out, they cannot commit that they will not take more. It is robbing Peter to pay Paul. It also misses the point that, by being climate deniers, you are actually doing-in agriculture in this country.

You are also doing-in our fisheries industry by being climate deniers. Our ocean ecosystems are already changing as a result of climate change. We already have global warming. We already have ocean acidification. We already have our currents being affected. We already have our marine species being dislocated. There is now a website called Redmap that you can go on to and log where you catch marine species out of location. Go on it and have a look—it is really educational. There are lots of species there, I can tell you, that have already been dislocated. Fishers know this because they are seeing these species now when they go fishing. It is really interesting to see the map, again, particularly for my home state of Western Australia. The oceans are changing, our ecosystems are changing, and it means that we need to have good fisheries practices and management that adapts to and addresses these changes. It means that we need a strong and effective system of marine protected areas.

And what is this government doing? I notice this was not mentioned yesterday: they are trying to undermine and wind back the world-leading marine park protected system in this country that many people have worked so long to put in place. Not only does it protect our marine ecosystems it also protects our fisheries and puts in place a management system. It ensures we do have sustainable fisheries and a marine environment in the face of climate change. But of course we should not be taking action on climate change—I forgot that!

Another area of sustainable agriculture is of course biosecurity. I would probably run out of time into tomorrow if I were speaking on my feet and repeating everything I had heard a coalition senator say about biosecurity in the last eight years. Yet what is one of the first acts of this government and of the agriculture minister? It is to cut funding to biosecurity, to cut funding on border compliance. Again, biosecurity is fundamental to sustainable agriculture. Where is the vision? We have seen a cutting of 220 jobs that are absolutely critical for our agriculture and to provide protection from invasive plant and animal species.

Then of course we get to GrainCorp. This is one area where I agree with the Nationals. I am very concerned about the takeover by ADM of GrainCorp and I agree with the Nationals: it does present problems for our farmers. We should restart the inquiry into this takeover. We are concerned that it will be anticompetitive, that it will have a negative impact on our farmers, and we urge the Nationals to continue their opposition to this takeover.

Then we come to the government's agenda for northern Australia: the pipedream that northern Australia will save the rest of Australia. Again, it is a complex environment with complex issues but they are going back to the dream that there is plenty of rainfall up in there and we will just build a few dams and put agriculture in. Australia needs a very different approach in the way we manage northern Australia and not repeat the mistakes we have made in southern Australia. Number one out of that is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities need to be at the heart of that process. We cannot repeat in the North the mistakes that we have made in the south. We do not agree with the government's vision for this country. We believe we have a much better vision for this country and we will be seeking to implement that whenever we can, and that will be at the heart of our decision-making.