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Wednesday, 1 June 2005
Page: 225

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (6:22 PM) —Perhaps the most telling contrast about the realities of this budget was presented in the Sydney Morning Herald of 11 May when Matt Wade wrote an article with the headline ‘They’ll be feasting at the top end of town’. Alongside the article was a photograph of a hysterically laughing Peter Costello, obviously pleased with the inequitable tax—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Baldwin)—Order! The member will understand that you refer to members by their title or their electorate, not by name.

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON —The photograph was of a highly amused Treasurer, hysterically laughing at the realities of the inequities in this budget, a Treasurer who, in his past life, had been a very important activist in reducing the ability of workers to negotiate collectively against employers. The same newspaper contained an article in which the contrasting view was presented, entitiled ‘Painting the town red is out for full-time mum’. That was about a woman with six children who had been unable to obtain child support payments from her husband and who was living on $460 a week. The article was looking at the situation she would be in when her youngest child turned six years of age. That is the contrasting situation in the budget. We are all aware—it does not need regurgitating by each and every member here—that Labor has put up an alternative to the government’s proposal that the Prime Minister and members of this parliament should receive tax cuts of $65 a week. Under Labor’s alternative, large numbers of Australians would receive $12 a week rather than $6 a week. For some people that kind of figure—which seems paltry to members in this House, who are getting the $65 reduction—is indeed very important.

We are all aware that under the government’s proposed package 45 per cent of the value of tax cuts go to the top 10 per cent of taxpayers while the remaining 90 per cent of taxpayers share the other 55 per cent of tax cuts. It is a question of tax cuts, a more equitable proposal by Labor so that the vast majority of Australians get a better deal and we do not have this elitist proposal by the government. I hate to offend those on the other side by quoting the ACTU, but they said:

As a result of the last two Budgets high income earners stand to gain more than $130 a week in tax and superannuation relief while more than 75% of working people—everyone earning less than $58,000 a year—gets between zero and $6 a week.

They also talked about the way in which these families have been hit by higher interest rates under the current government—there has been a major effort by them to increase interest rates since the election—higher petrol prices, and increased medical and education costs. And of course we know of the particular changes on pharmaceuticals and Medicare that have occurred since the election.

ACOSS, the Australian Council of Social Service, made the point that 80,000 sole parents with children aged six to 16 who apply for parenting pensions will be put on Newstart payments and lose $20 a week over the next three years and that 70,000 people with disabilities will be deemed ineligible for DSP and lose $40 a week in payments. These people are already struggling on payments of just $200 to $240 a week, and they will receive even lower payments under the proposals of the people’s friend, John Howard. We should remember that 88 per cent of sole parent families are headed by women and 92 per cent of parenting payment single recipients are women.

That is the reality out there. It is not the conventional picture of the stereotypical analysis by people in backyards across Australia that it is all 15-year-old or 18-year-old teenagers who are having children. The reality is that single parents in Australia, predominantly women, are essentially in their 30s and 40s. That is borne out by the federal government’s own statistics. That is the reality out there: people on very low incomes trying to survive and look after their children. And now we are going to have a situation where they are essentially forced to go out to work as soon as their children turn six. We know there are going to be very unfortunate social consequences of this policy, because many of those people are concentrated in suburbs of very dense housing, transient population areas and housing department areas where virtually everyone has the same problem and social support is minimal. We are going to have very real social problems arising from this government’s policy.

It is very interesting to note this thrust against children and parents. One of the crises this country faces is the fertility rate. We lament the decline in the number of children in this country. We look at the overseas experience of countries like Japan and Germany which is much worse than ours. We complain about the ageing of our population. This policy is guaranteed to go further down that road. Rather than having a society which essentially encourages women to move in and out of the work force—to not lose their employment but be able to return to their status in organisations—and which supports them in bringing up children, these changes will worsen the situation.

In 2002, 49 per cent of children under 12 years of age, or 1½ million children, spent some time in child care. There is a chronic child-care shortage. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that 175,000 miss out on child care needed by their parents. And what we are going to have is the offer of 84,000 out of school hours places, 2,500 day-care places and 100 at-home places, which is going to continue the chronic shortage. We are going to have a situation where there is no funding for long day care places. This means that parents with young children under five years of age will be unable to return to the workplace in a practical sense. We will have a situation where nearly 160,000 sole parents are forced to work and need child care. They will be competing for a minimal number of child-care places in this country. I think the obvious outcome for this is extremely negative. The Treasurer criticised the claim that some welfare recipients were ‘shirkers’. He also questioned the growth in the number of Australians on disability pensions, declaring:

Have we really had an outbreak of disability?

In contrast, his brother Tim Costello of World Vision Australia said:

I think that notion there’s a whole big group out there who are taking taxpayers for a ride is actually profoundly untrue.

I think when you are trying and you are really giving it a go, that people assume when there’s low unemployment that you must be a shirker, is disempowering.

Those are contrasting views on these changes. The government argues some statistics, such as unemployment rates and interest rates et cetera. But all is not merry in the kingdom. I refer to an article by Tom Bramble in issue No. 54 of the Australian Journal of Political Economy which made a few other points about the reality in this country. He looked at part-time and casual employment. Whereas in 1984, 16 per cent of the Australian work force was casualised, today we see 27.9 per cent in casual employment and a further 28.5 per cent in part-time employment. Thirty-five per cent of new jobs are casualised. While everyone in this country is allegedly so happy, the Australian survey of social attitudes indicated with regard to working hours that two-thirds of people, who because of the power of employers have very little choice in life these days, said that they were working too many hours. In 1992, executive pay in this country was 22 times greater than average weekly earnings. A decade later, in 2002, it was 74 times greater.

In the housing market, we have a situation where, in 1996, 43 per cent of people in Australia owned their own house and 28 per cent were paying it off. Now the amount of people owning their own house has declined to 38 per cent of the population. Amongst people aged 25 to 39 years there has been a decline of 10 per cent in home ownership. In the period 1999 to 2004, total earnings in this country of $77 million have been countered by a consumption increase of $110 million. I turn to the household debt to income ratio. In 1996, it was 35 per cent; in 1990, 50 per cent; and, in 2004, 150 per cent. And I do not need to accentuate the foreign debt or the decline of Australia’s trading situation in elaborately manufactured goods.

An article by Kenneth Davidson in Dissent magazine in the summer of 2004-05 made a few points about the great contrast with regard to the export of elaborately transformed manufactures from this country. There was an expansion in their growth rate over the decade to 1996 of 18 per cent. What has the figure been since 1997? Against that 18 per cent rise, there has been a rise of 1.7 per cent. The trade deficit has markedly blown out. We have seen a situation where:

Behind the smokescreen supplied by the $8 billion budget black hole, Costello slashed $2 billion of R&D, business and export development programs plus funding cuts to universities and training programs.

Talking about training, we have come to a very sad situation in this country. Today’s figures from the NCVER on Australian apprentice and trainee statistics note that sad situation. In the 12 months ended December 2004, there were 133,000 withdrawals and cancellations compared with 139,000 completions of apprenticeships. The number of cancellations in the three months ended last December was the highest on record. Those statistics also indicate that the number of apprenticeship commencements fell from 277,000 to 263,000 over the 12 months to December 2004. So what we have in this country is a very serious problem with regard to training in the conventional trades.

I recently had the pleasure of attending Granville TAFE College in my electorate, the second oldest in the country and the second largest in Sydney. With the support of the CFMEU, the support of the state government and the interest of local employers and community groups, people were trying against all obstacles—against inactivity and lack of interest by this government—to sponsor young people and get them involved in conventional apprenticeship areas. But it is going to be to little avail because of the stark lack of interest by this government in training. I have to admit: the government do have a solution. Since they have been in government, they have brought in over 400,000 people under the skilled migration category. They have brought 400,000 people into this country to fill the skill absences which they have created. That seems to be the limit of their thinking on this matter.

What do we see with the migration intake? When Labor went out of government the current Prime Minister was out there with subliminal messages to the electorate that Labor was a high-migration party, that Labor was dictated by ethnic vote buying, that this is what dictated immigration in this country. A decade later, the man who subscribed to views of a low-migration future for this country will have an intake next year of 137,000. If you look at the figures, you will see that the total of 137,000 is markedly higher than in most of the Labor Keating-Hawke years.

Mr Kerr —I think the biggest we ever got was 160 or thereabouts.

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON —I think that is correct. What has been the reality inside that intake? Next we have seen a decline in the refugee humanitarian intake in this country. When the Prime Minister came to power, this country’s concern, involvement and interest in the world was such that 16 per cent of the intake was refugee humanitarians. In the coming year it will, sadly, decline to nine per cent. At the same time family migration has been starkly slashed back. In the current intake, out of that 137,000 next year, 97,000 will be part of the skills intake. If you are an employer, are you going to bother? Are you going to be interested in training anyone when you could just ring up the federal government minister a few days after you have been to the party fundraising function and say: ‘It’s dreadful in Australia. We can’t get employees. It’s really dreadful out there. It’s so hard. When you advertise in the papers there’s no interest. No-one’s skilled enough. Please, please help us.’ The government is so uninterested in our skills future that it thinks it can just turn on the tap. No employer is going to do any training under this government, because it is so inclined to see the short-term solution of migration.

If we had any hope that it was going to improve under the Howard government, the last budget was very interesting. The initiatives are very minimal. I will develop this more in the exploration of the budget in detail. Most of the expenditure in this budget in the immigration portfolio is for various aspects of the skills intake, which is understandable. But this government has come up with a new and brilliant solution to how we are going to solve skills shortages in this country. It has come up with a new initiative. We are going to import not only labour but also people to do apprenticeships. This is the giant idea that has come out of this government. It will solve our problems by bringing in people to do apprenticeships here. We cannot encourage Australians to do it. We cannot give incentives to employers to make sure they do it. We cannot give benefits to people to finish apprentices. So now we are going to Timisoara in Romania and Timbuktu in north-west Africa to look around for people to come and fill these skills shortages in this country. What future does that indicate for young people in this country? That the government is so uninterested that it sees the future as bringing apprenticeships into the country.

They have talked about other initiatives such as these new colleges, which will not produce anyone with a trades degree until 2010. This government say: ‘Things are so desperate that we have to bring in an extra 20,000 people in the skilled intake next year. It’s so desperate this moment—not next week, not in two years—that that we have got to increase the intake at this level now.’ They are bringing in a scheme that is going to bring in more apprenticeships in 2010. If you want any reason why this is happening in this country, look to the sad state of payments to apprentices. It is bad enough that the media promote competition with regard to the lifestyles of other people. It is bad enough that some areas of this employment have been decried and turned down for years by public debate. It is worsened by the amount of money that is paid to these people.

It is a concern to people that this is the government’s response. There has been very little research done. We know that one of the initiatives of the government when it first came in was to close down the independent research body which looked at settlement in this country. We have got no real evidence of the connection between the trades, occupations and supposed proficiencies of the people we import and where they actually end up in the labour force. We in Australia are asked to have faith in this budget, to have faith that the skills shortage of this country are going to be solved by a proposal which will bring out tradesmen in another five years time. We are asked to say that this government is going to solve the problem by bringing in people as skilled migrants, with great uncertainty as to whether they will actually work in that occupation. We face the reality that migration processing in these areas takes a year or so on average. So the chronic, immediate crisis which has to be solved tomorrow afternoon is certainly not going to be solved by this initiative.

With regard to immigration, I will also briefly talk about the refugee and humanitarian intake. Last year there was great fanfare about an increase in the money spent on the settlement of immigrants under the refugee and humanitarian intake. In reality, if you look at the figures, you see that per capita there was no increase. The only reason that there was a rise was that there was an increase in the intake from 12,000 to 13,000. This coming year we will see a focus on Africa in regard to our refugee and humanitarian intake, a government initiative that I support totally and absolutely. However, these people will cost the Australian taxpayers more money per capita because many of them have had very disrupted education, if any education. They have lived in dire circumstances in rural areas, and they have very major family dislocations. If you treat them with the same level of assistance per capita as before, it will not go very far.

In conclusion, there is an initiative by the opposition which encompasses a far more equitable tax option for the Australian people. It is a thrust towards doing something about the collapse of infrastructure in this country. There are measures that encourage people back into the work force. There is no stick; there is no persecution. There are no punitive measures to force them back but, rather, there are measures that give them incentives to empower themselves to become part of the work force. I commend Labor’s amendment.