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Thursday, 11 March 2004
Page: 21334

Senator KNOWLES (10:10 AM) —Today we are reporting on a very long inquiry into poverty, as Senator Hutchins has just referred to. The government senators approached this inquiry in the vain hope—it now appears—that there would have been a bipartisan outcome for this inquiry into such an important issue. Instead, we were presented at the eleventh hour with one week to respond to a 420-page draft wish list.

Senator Ian Campbell —It was two weeks.

Senator KNOWLES —It ended up being two weeks. I sought an extension of time for a month for us to respond to this most comprehensive wish list that is directed to the states and territories. I was denied that. Interestingly enough, I was denied it on the basis that the chairman, no less, told me that we committee members had the resources of government to write our report, which is a very interesting proposition. For me to hand over the draft to the government would have been a gross breach of privilege. Therefore, it was unbelievable in the extreme to think that a chairman would say to us, `You can't have a reasonable extension time to do a minority report because you've got the resources of government.'

This is a very important issue and the government senators recognise that there are challenges to assist those who are suffering hardship. We should be looking at building on the gains that have been made in the last eight years. It is sad for those who were affected by this inquiry that this outcome has not been bipartisan. Not only that—the draft report was leaked in its entirety in advance of its tabling and in advance of the first discussion by the committee. Government senators, as I said, were hopeful that this would have a better outcome and that the Labor opposition would start by looking at what has happened in the last eight years and say, `They are great steps forward; what we need to do is work together for the benefit of those suffering hardship to make things even better.'

It is a statement of fact that Australia has one of the best and most generous income support systems in the world. Most support systems in the world one has to contribute to and, after a very short period of time, income support is removed. That has never been part of the Australian ethos. Australians are extraordinarily generous in their fair go attitude but they believe in mutual responsibility. While the current system works well for most, at no stage are we or the government saying that everything that can be done has been done—far from it. We believe there is much more to be done; there is much more to build on. The provision of over 1.3 million new jobs, which has contributed to a massive 30 per cent fall in the unemployment rate since Labor left office, is part of that equation. There have been more full-time jobs created just in the last six months than there were in the last six years of the Labor government.

Senator Ferris —What was that again?

Senator KNOWLES —There have been more full-time jobs, Senator Ferris, created in the last six months by this government than there were in the last six years of the Labor government. The only policy that the Labor Party had on poverty was Prime Minister Hawke saying, `By 1990, no child shall live in poverty.' What did they do to follow that policy up? They put a million people out of work. That is not the way this government operates. The government has paid back $66 billion of Labor's $96 billion debt.

This is just a brief overview of what we were hoping the opposition would want to build on. Unemployment rates have dropped from 10.9 per cent to 5.7 per cent; the number of unemployed has dropped from nearly a million to 583,000; female unemployment has dropped from 7.6 per cent to 6.1 per cent; male unemployment has dropped; youth unemployment has dropped; mature age unemployment has dropped; the number of local government areas with unemployment less than five per cent has increased; the labour market regions with unemployment above 10 per cent have gone from 15 under Labor to one under the coalition; apprenticeships have increased from 141,000 to 398,000; home mortgage rates have dropped from 17 per cent to six per cent; annual average inflation has halved; average weekly earnings have increased from 7.6 per cent to 16 per cent; and average disposable household incomes have increased since 1996 by 13 per cent.

It is very interesting to look at the value of real wages. Under Labor it was minus 2.5 per cent; under the coalition it has been plus 6.5 per cent. The nation's debt has dropped from $96 billion under Labor to $29.7 billion under the coalition. Under Labor each person owed $5,235 and we have brought that down to $1,600. There is an error in the minority report where the figures for expenditure on government schools are transposed. They should be: under Labor, $1.5 billion; under the Commonwealth government, $2.4 billion.

There are some very important areas where we hoped the Labor opposition would have come across and enjoyed saying, `This is a great outcome. We want to build on it. We want to look at the way in which we can support those most in need.' We have introduced the Personal Support Program at Centrelink whereby people who are in need can go along to the personal support officers and be taken through things individually and their problems and the areas in which they need assistance can be identified. Then they can be moved into transition to work programs, training accounts, training credits, passports to employment and Centrelink personal advisers. There has also been better assessment of people with disabilities. Quite often, people with disabilities are discriminated against and we have tried to remove that discrimination at every course. Therefore, to ensure that those people are identified and assisted, they have been given special attention, which was never granted under Labor. We have given support to parents that we want to see enhanced—for example, providing additional child-care places. Senator Hutchins talked about the dearth of child-care places. There are 200,000 more child-care places since Labor left office and he says there is a dearth of child-care places—pretty interesting sums to me.

Support for older workers is also particularly important. There are now a number of measures in place that we need to work on to help older workers. Unfortunately, the Labor Party in the last couple of weeks do not want older people to work at all. They would much prefer to see them slip into poverty after a specified time of retirement. What we are saying is that, if older people want to continue to work, we will give them the incentives and support to do so, so as to avoid them going into poverty, but the Labor Party takes a different view.

We also have a number of programs for support for Indigenous people on which we have to build. Those programs have proven to be most successful in the way in which we have been able to get more people into work and into useful areas of participation in the community. Language, literacy and numeracy are very big problems which we have tried to address from primary school all the way up. If we have a continuation of Labor's intergenerational lack of literacy and numeracy, we can only expect an increase in poverty. We have tried to stop that at the school level and all the way up to families. An extra $160 million for disability employment services has been allocated from July 2003. There is much we need to build on to ensure that we minimise the number of those people who are in need and those who are suffering any form of poverty in Australia. We must make sure that we do not get caught up in more committees, more reference groups, that would simply delay the issue even further. There is no point in saying that we can try to accept poverty lines and poverty targets.