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Monday, 14 October 1985
Page: 1149

Senator MASON(3.52) —Those of us who live in New South Wales, especially in Sydney, have to be pretty long suffering. Sydney is accused of being the crime capital of Australia, of having the nation's worst traffic, the sharpest businessmen and some other even less charitable items. If there is something that is really rotten in New South Wales it is that thing which is about as ugly and as sordid as one can get; that is, actual poverty, actual deprivation, even of the basic necessities such as food and shelter. This is increasingly the lot of hundreds of thousands of people, especially those least able to look after themselves, such as children, the aged, the young unemployed and poor families. That is what this debate ought to be about. Indeed, it is what it is about. I am not very happy at all about Senator Coates's response to the debate on behalf of the Government. He is not a senator for New South Wales. I suppose these people are not his responsibility. It is okay for him to sit there and say that the Government cannot do anything about the problem and that it would cost the New South Wales Government $400m to $500m to cope with this situation.

Senator Coates —I did not say that.

Senator MASON —The honourable senator said $500m to $600m.

Senator Coates —No, that is what New South Wales is saying.

Senator MASON —That is what New South Wales is saying; fair enough. That is the point. Senator Coates is looking at one side of the coin and I am looking at the other. In other words, that is as convenient a quantification as any of the state of the problem. Surely that is of some significance. We are saying quite calmly in this Parliament that there is disproportionate poverty and need in the biggest city of this country which would cost $500m to $600m a year to cope with and we are not going to do anything about it. That is an intolerable and a completely inhuman situation. We are now starting to see the effects of the decision by the New South Wales Government to discontinue emergency cash funding of the poor as from the 1st of this month. Senator Peter Baume covered the points made by the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday about the huge queues that are now turning up at relief centres in Sydney, the fact that the Hare Krishna centre ran out of food for the first time in five years because the queues were so big and the fact that the Smith Family had to close two hours early last week on two days for the same reason. The General Secretary of the Smith Family, Mr Bob Turner, said:

The situation is now desperate and it will get worse, much worse.

That is not a source of consolation to any of us. As a senator for New South Wales, one of my major worries for some time has been the appalling economic inequities in New South Wales, especially in Sydney and particularly in the western suburbs of Sydney. It is, I suppose, one of the great disadvantages of big cities that they point up and exacerbate social and economic inequities. One would have thought that our governments would give some due thought to this phenomenon and do what they can to see that hundreds of thousands of people now in deep economic trouble have their problems addressed, but they do not do this. As Senator Peter Baume has indicated, this is an intractable, long-standing problem. It is worth saying-I think that Senator Coates has said it-that the problems of the poor in New South Wales are not simply the responsibility of the Hawke Government; they go back much earlier than the present Labor Government. There can be no doubt that the Liberal and National parties are very much to blame for the present situation, just as much as the current Government.

Senator Peter Baume pointed out that the immediate problem is the withdrawal of emergency funding from 1 October. I will talk more about that later. Really that is only the tip of the iceberg. Poverty goes very deep and it is very widespread in Sydney. First of all, I would like to look at some broad background to that because these matters need to be faced squarely. Every day things happen to tens of thousands of people in Sydney which ought to be considered incredible, intolerable and totally unjustifiable in any decent society. Yet we tolerate them and even, to some extent, try to justify them. I am speaking about the thousands of people who every night sleep in parks, under bridges and in shop doorways because they have no roof over their head. I am speaking of the thousands more who rely for a place to sleep and for basic food on the hard pressed services of the welfare organisations which, as the Sydney Morning Herald report indicated, are in a state of desperation. There are hundreds of thousands more who live in the worst of inadequate accommodation, many of them in caravan parks, because they cannot afford to pay rent for even the most minimal accommodation. Rents in Sydney are increasing sharply. From time to time, people, often old people, die in fires, They live in ramshackle fire traps in parts of Sydney because that is the only accommodation which many aged pensioners and unemployed people can afford.

Many times over the years I have tried to get the Federal Government to accept the inequity involved in its actions. I have especially made mention of the rent subsidy for pensioners, which is the same amount anywhere in Australia. The subsidy does not take into account the fact that rents for even minimal accommodation are two and three times higher in Sydney than in some other parts of Australia. I have sought to have that allowance indexed to the average rentals in major centres of population, but I have not got anywhere because I am told that the Constitution says that all Australians must be treated equally. Great! I would have thought that there was no equal treatment when a pensioner in Sydney was expected to pay a far higher proportion of his welfare payment in rent than a pensioner in Hobart. But somehow the bureaucracy has convinced itself that it does not need to see it that way round. That sort of thing is a purblindness which is not justified under any circumstances.

I have visited beehive centres and other places where elderly people are. If only the people in this chamber could understand the enormous suffering, hardship and early deaths which result from that one thing alone in Sydney, they might feel differently about the matter. A Sydney pensioner, as a result of having to pay appallingly higher rents, even for just a small room with shared facilities, has far less money on which to survive-to buy food and other things which are necessary to maintain even an unhealthy lifestyle. That is the fate of many pensioners in Sydney. Having served this country all their lives until they receive a pension, they are expected to eke out the rest of their lives in conditions of malnutrition, where they simply cannot afford to buy decent meat, fruit, milk and so on to the extent that experts in geriatrics tell us that it is physiologically necessary for them. We wish that fate upon them because of our calm acceptance of the situation. One of the major outlets in Sydney for pet food is as protein food for pensioners. People have said that the sale of certain brands of pet food in Sydney is as high as 60 per cent because it is the only protein which pensioners can afford.

We might have accepted this situation if what I am quoting from now was a Dickens novel, but this is Australia in 1985. One of the ironies of the present situation in New South Wales is that the influence of government overall, for one reason or another, is not to improve conditions in those areas in which the poor live but to organise things so that the poor and their families become even more disadvantaged. Surely that is a matter of public importance. I am thinking again, of course, of the western suburbs of Sydney where the days are starting to heat up and will get hotter into the summer. I am thinking especially of the wretched situation in which school children are expected to do their work in so-called demountable classrooms. These aluminium boxes were originally designed in the United States of America where, I am informed, it is considered that they should be used only if provided with proper heating in winter and air conditioning in summer. They were designed to have those things automatically with them, otherwise they are useless and unfit for human beings to be in. But that was never accepted in New South Wales. Children there are expected to learn in freezing conditions in winter and appallingly hot ones in summer. As a result, they are being exposed to a very real and permanent disadvantage, which no doubt will affect them all their lives and which here again we accept with complacency.

These children of the poor in the outer suburbs of Sydney, who might have the effrontery to qualify themselves for tertiary education and who can somehow get the money together, will not find a university west of Parramatta, where nearly half of Sydney's population now lives. Of the three universities in the inner suburbs of Sydney, the only one with any reasonable access to those outer suburbs is Macquarie University at Ryde. The outer suburbs are disadvantaged in almost every conceivable way-parks, hospitals, baby health centres, open space, public transport, to name a few. That situation drags on. Indeed, as time goes on, it gets worse. Even in today's Press social workers in the western area of Sydney are pressing the urgent need for new suburbs, or at least the organisation of suburbs fit for people to live in because the ones that are now there are not fit for people to live in.

The New South Wales public hospital system is still in a state of siege. The New South Wales Health Department has cut back on this year's allocations to most public hospitals by hundreds of thousands of dollars each because of decreased attendances over the past year. Obviously, there has been inadequate consultation with the hospitals concerned, or the Department would have realised that, in the main, the decreased attendances were due to the doctors' strike, and not to any dramatic improvement in the health of the citizens of New South Wales. This somehow might have made one feel that one could get by with less money, but that is not the case.

The Australian Democrats believe that the basic problem in this current emergency in New South Wales lies not with the State government, even though it is at fault-and I shall go into that matter briefly in a moment-but with the Federal Government which has not provided adequate social security payments, especially for children, people renting accommodation and the unemployed, and which does not recognise the special problems of Sydney with its higher rents, higher transport costs and higher costs in almost every area. These people who are unemployed, renting accommodation, aged, are most often forced to swallow their pride and go out and beg for a small amount of money to enable them to make ends meet.

The New South Wales Government, in the Democrats' opinion, has made three basic mistakes in eliminating this emergency relief funding. First, it left far too short a time between announcing the move and the time of its inception, which was 1 October. This allowed very little time for welfare organisations to get their act together in such a way that they could cope where the Government obviously refused to do so. Those organisations are doing their best to cope, but no real opportunity was given to them to do it.

Senator Walters —They haven't got the money anyway.

Senator MASON —They haven't got the money anyway, but at least if they had a bit of warning they could have tried. They have not been given that opportunity by the New South Wales Government. Secondly, the New South Wales Government did not say, when announcing the move, that this was a Federal responsibility. Instead, there were statements that the Federal Government had done such a good job with increasing social security payments that the emergency relief fund was no longer necessary. That was a patently untrue, cynical and even immoral point of view. It was a piece of political justification which, in other circumstances, we might have found acceptable, but in this circumstance of such manifest and huge need it comes out looking very shabby indeed. More and more people in New South Wales are forced to seek emergency help every day because their social security allowance is not adequate. That should be abundantly clear to all of us.

The third mistake made by the New South Wales Government was to move unilaterally instead of in consultation with the other States. If there were to be some sort of reorganisation, if it had moved perhaps in consultation with other State governments, it would have had the support of those governments and this matter would have been brought to this place and other places and to the attention of the media throughout the country not just as a New South Wales problem but as a national problem. No doubt it will become a national problem because, New South Wales having taken this step, there will be a strong temptation now on the part of other States to consider similar action when they want to save some money. If they could have done these things together instead of acting like Brown's cows, the situation would have been much better.

The Australian Council of Social Service and the New South Wales Council of Social Service both believe that the State governments should not have to provide emergency relief funds to cover up for the inadequacies of the Federal Government's social security system. This is a Federal Government responsibility and it must be seen as such. The provision of these funds only makes the social security system more complex. It is also insidious in its institutionalisation of begging as a legitimate form of obtaining emergency welfare payments. That system strips people of their dignity completely when they are feeling most vulnerable. To make them beg for something for which they ought to have an automatic right is a bizarre, cruel twist to our social organisations. I spoke today to the Australian Council of Social Service and asked whether it had any suggestions about what could be done to improve the situation in New South Wales immediately. The Council felt that if three steps were taken now the situation would be very much improved. I commend these to the Government.

The three steps it suggested were, first, that the New South Wales Government continue to provide emergency relief funding for six months. As Senator Coates said, this Government has asked the New South Wales Government to reconsider its decision. I add my plea to that: Let the matter be restored, even at some financial disadvantage to the State, for another six months. Secondly, the Federal Government should either accelerate the introduction of the pension increases proposed in the last Budget-that could be done; it is not an impossible thing to happen, and I commend it to the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce (Senator Button)-or provide special extra funding such as a special children's pension allocation at Christmas, or both. Thirdly, State Government instrumentalities should review their billing methods, especially for fuel such as electricity and gas, considering among other things more favourable rates for those in greatest need. If the present situation continues as it is now, we will be moving towards a Dickensian society of poorhouses, workhouses, and a social system which condones starving, ragged children begging in the streets. It has not come to that yet-not quite-but the writing is on the wall for us. We in this Parliament have got to do something practical about this problem, and the sooner the better.