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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21550

Ms KING (7:30 PM) —The Prime Minister proclaims himself to be the protector of working families. In August 2001 the Prime Minister said in his National Press Club address that obtaining the balance between work and family is essential for the prosperity of our nation and that he personally would not like to see the situation `where our growing wealth has been built at the expense of our families and communities'.

Yet families in my electorate are part of the one-third of all Australians who are now working more than 49 hours a week and part of the 60 per cent of workers who are working some time on the weekend or well into the evening—and they are doing it all for the highest taxing government in Australia's history. At the same time, approximately 6,000 families in the electorate of Ballarat owe a family tax benefit debt. This accounts for almost $51 million that has been taken out of the families' pockets in areas like Daylesford, Buninyong and Ross Creek. These overpayments are not the fault of these families but the fault of this government's flawed family tax benefit system.

This system asks for families to estimate their annual income, despite the fact that it could be affected by overtime worked or an increase in share dividends. If a family underestimates it means a bill at the end of the financial year. There is no capacity within the system to actually adjust payments. Last year, families in my electorate had their tax returns stripped by family tax benefit overpayments. Many were not aware this was happening and many more were unaware that they had a debt in the first place. They were relying on these tax refunds to purchase new household furniture or to take a holiday or were going to put the refunds away for Christmas.

Therefore, what we had was the government again shifting the blame for a flawed family tax benefit system to the families, who were not at fault, by asking them to repay their overpayment—certainly in some cases in my electorate—via their credit cards. We heard today in question time the Prime Minister's refusal to allow an amendment that would permit families to pay off these debts in instalments rather than have their tax returns automatically reduced.

The Howard government went even further recently, with 597 families in my electorate being asked to prove to the government that their children actually had disabilities and continued to require care to entitle them to the carers allowance. These cold-hearted reviews followed the decision five years ago to change eligibility for child disability allowance when the new carers allowance replaced it. To avoid a backlash to the new rules the government decided to continue payments to those previously granted child disability allowance based on recognised disabilities but placed them on a five-year review.

The time is up for the families, who must now justify the care provided to their children, who unquestionably have serious disabilities. It is a disgrace that many families who care for children with a range of disabilities are still being asked to justify the care that they provide. Forcing these families to justify these modest benefits is further proof of the Howard government's habitual heartlessness towards the most vulnerable.

Many working families in my electorate not only are being crippled by significant credit card debts and family tax benefit debts, but also are finding that—while it is terrific that house prices have gone up—their mortgages are taking up more and more of their incomes. They are finding it harder and harder to live under this government.

Labor will try and provide a better way of life for working families. We believe that it is important to get a balance between work and family life. We want to support working families and we want to see a better family tax benefit system.

I know the Prime Minister will, in the lead-up to the next election, stand in front of the Australian people and the people in my electorate and say that he is working for working families. The battlers who are in my electorate will certainly know that, over the course of the seven years of this government, it has been absent in many areas and that many of its policies, including the flawed family tax benefit system, have in fact been burdening them with debt rather than actually assisting them.