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Monday, 24 November 2008
Page: 19

Senator CAMERON (7:37 PM) —I rise today in support of the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Economic Security Strategy) Bill 2008. It gives me great pleasure to support these bills today, because, during such unstable times for the national and international economy, this $10.4 billion strategy will strengthen our economy and give much-needed support to Australian households. When I walked in, Senator Williams asked me if I was going to talk about the last 11½ years. That is an invitation that I just cannot resist! But I will not spend too much time on the last 11½ years when, after listening to Senator Scullion for a short period of time, I see that they really have not learned much from them. They ended up with the Australian public turfing them out on their ears.

They still seem to think that the money that is in government coffers should be kept there regardless of the needs of the community, regardless of the needs of individual families and regardless of what is good for our economy. For 11½ years it was really ‘let the market rip’. That was the catch-cry of the Liberal-National coalition, and we saw what that did. It left us ill equipped to face this huge economic crisis that has devastated countries around the world and has seen many banks go to the wall. I will come back to the economic issues that the Liberals have left us for the future, and I thank Senator Williams for giving me the offer to talk about that.

While our economy is strong because we have had a strong national government, a government that is decisive, we still need to understand this global financial crisis. Decisive action is needed to ensure our economy remains strong. These bills are just what is needed for these difficult economic times. The global financial crisis is placing increasing pressures on budgets already stretched by the rising cost of living, and this is impacting millions of Australians. We need to act now in order to reassure Australians that we recognise their concerns and that we recognise that they are struggling financially. This government will act responsibly and confidently.

The Economic Security Strategy is a discretionary fiscal stimulus package that is overwhelmingly focused on the first half of 2009 and is tightly targeted at key aspects of the economy: household consumption and dwelling investment. The strategy provides relief to those people in the community who have been struggling to meet rising costs for housing, petrol and food in the last couple of years, particularly those on low incomes or with children and other family members to support. The payments under this legislation are part of a long-term financial strategy. They are intended to provide additional support over the next nine months, between now and when long-term reforms are introduced from the beginning of the next financial year. This government is not about short-termism; this government is about dealing with the immediate problems and building a long-term strategy in the interest of the Australian community. These payments will provide immediate financial support to the Australians who are most in need of assistance: working families who the Liberal and National parties had forgotten about. We are going to support pensioners, seniors and people with disabilities, carers and veterans—the ordinary Australians who were forgotten about under the Howard government, the ordinary Australians who are struggling to keep their heads above water.

The Economic Security Strategy provides critical economic support and stimulation. It recognises the impact of the global financial crisis and it recognises the impact the crisis is having on the budgets of seniors, pensioners, carers and families. We are not going to take the stunt approach that the Liberal and National parties used when they called for an increase in the pension without any long-term strategy for the future, when for 11½ years they had ignored pensioners, when for 11½ years they wanted to let the market rip and not worry about how individuals suffered under the Howard government. This government understands the needs of Australian families, and the Economic Security Strategy means $3.9 billion in immediate financial support. Around two million families will be eligible for a $1,000 bonus payment for each child. The bonus payment is recognition that many Australian families are doing it particularly tough as the global financial crisis comes off the back of rising living costs. Through this bill, the government is moving decisively to make the already-strong Australian economy more resilient. At the same time, we are supporting pensioners and families through the global financial crisis.

Under the government’s Economic Security Strategy, over 5.2 million pensioners, carers and families will receive one-off payments. We do not agree with what we have heard from the other side about what this will result in. Labor do not believe that the majority of Australian families will go down to the pub and spend this in the pub or on the pokies, because we understand the real needs of Australian families. The real need of Australian families now is support for their weekly budgets to ensure that they get food on the table and that they can meet their bills. That will be the priority for Australian families—not, as we have heard from the other side, going down the pub and blowing their money on booze and pokies. I think that is an absolute insult to Australian families, and the opposition should reject that view tonight. You have an opportunity to respect Australian families and to move away from that noxious view you have about ordinary working Australians and their incapacity to deal with the financial situation that they face at the moment.

This package is also recognition of the additional costs single pensioners face relative to couples. For the first time, lump-sum payments are being extended to include disability support pensioners. There was not a word about these pensioners in the Liberal Party’s bleating and rhetoric that we heard earlier in the year. All that they wanted was their short-term political grab on the front page of the Australian; if they got that, they were happy. They really did not care about pensioners. They just wanted a carping view to be put forward in relation to the government’s performance. The Australian public know about this government’s performance. The Australian government is well-respected and the Prime Minister is highly respected in terms of our response to this global economic situation that we are facing. The public are the litmus test of how well we are performing, not the carping that we hear almost on a daily basis from the opposition.

Under the coalition’s proposal, which now seems to have sunk without a trace, over 4.3 million of these pensioners, carers and families would have received no financial relief—not a cent for these ordinary Australians who are facing significant economic stress. Not one cent! It is clear that our proposal will provide more support and relief to the people of Australia most in need of assistance. For families with dependent children, from 8 December 2008, a payment of $1,000 will be made for each child for whom family tax benefit A was payable at 14 October 2008. Similarly, a $1,000 payment will be made for each dependent child who, as at 14 October 2008, either attracts or receives youth allowance, Abstudy living allowance, or an education allowance under the Veterans Children Education Scheme or the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act Education and Training Scheme. We have not forgotten these people, but the Liberals and the National Party had forgotten about them when they engaged in their earlier stunt on an increase for pensioners.

Our package and these benefits will assist around two million Australian families at an investment of $3.9 billion. These payments will arrive in time for the Christmas holiday period, so people will have this extra assistance to help relieve the pressure of the additional costs of Christmas. I know what it is like for a family trying to deal with Christmas on a modest income. I know what it is like trying to make sure that your kids are looked after during the Christmas period. Having to do the extra things that you need at Christmas places on families not only financial pressure but also huge stress to try to meet society’s expectations over the holiday period.

In addition to this, a Christmas bonus will reinvigorate the retail industry. This is welcome news for retailers, who have been hit hard by the months of reduced consumer demand. It will also save thousands of jobs. This is a package that is not just targeted at giving money away. It is targeted at reinvigorating the economy. It is targeted at ensuring that the jobs of ordinary Australian workers will be more secure because of government intervention and because of government strategy and direction—something that was missing for 11½ years under the Howard government. This package is clear evidence that the government is supportive of middle-income earners who work hard and pay their taxes. We are not out there to look after the Maserati drivers that the Howard government looked after and from whom this coalition still yearns for a pat on the top of the head. We are looking after ordinary Australian families. We are also looking after farmers who are doing it tough over that period of time as well.

The Australians who are being looked after are those Australians who make an invaluable contribution to the economic well-being of Australia, and we have not forgotten them like the Liberals and the National Party did for 11½ years. The government’s strategy is decisive and forward thinking, and it will have a far-reaching, positive impact on the Australian economy. Our package is becoming a model for governments around the world. We have been at the forefront of dealing with this economic crisis, and all we have heard from the opposition is carping and uninformed free-market rhetoric that means nothing to ordinary Australians—and it is the reason why they were dumped at the last election.

Our package will ensure that cost-of-living pressures on older Australians become a matter of social justice, not just some bottom line on the budget. It is a matter of social justice. Older, working-class pensioners are more likely to be amongst the significant number of older Australians experiencing poverty and social exclusion. Poverty rates amongst older persons in Australia are amongst the highest in the developed world. This is unacceptable, and it has taken a Labor government to deal with this matter in a comprehensive manner, both in the short, medium and long term. An inadequate pension base and infrequent and insufficient increases in the pension, which the coalition allowed to continue for 12 years, are fundamental reasons that the cost of living impacts so extensively on age pensioners of this country.

The $4.8 billion in this package for pensioners builds on the $7.5 billion in support provided in the government’s first budget, bringing new spending on carers, pensioners and seniors to $12.3 billion in the 12 months since the election. This government has delivered for the pensioners of Australia. People who, as at 14 October, were of age pension age and were receiving parenting payment, special benefit, Austudy payment or Abstudy living allowance will receive a payment under this legislation. None of those groups were ever mentioned in the absolutely feeble attack that has been launched on the government from the opposition benches over the 12 months. The payment will also go to self-funded retirees who hold a current Commonwealth seniors health card and to holders of a Veterans’ Affairs gold card.

The Economic Security Strategy payment for this group of Australians will be $1,400 for singles and $2,100 combined, if both members of a couple receive a qualifying payment, and $1,050 if only one of the couple does so. This is, again, an example of how far-reaching the impact of these bills will be. Providing further financial support to pensioners will result in a boost to the local economy. It will also provide single age pensioners, who often barely scrape by, with the financial capabilities to enjoy themselves in a bit better fashion than they have done in the last 11½ years under the coalition government, where pensioners struggled to keep their heads above water. Under these bills, a much broader group of pensioners will be receiving the support they have been unfairly missing out on for years.

The total additional appropriation being sought through supplementary estimates bills Nos 1 and 2 is $1.33 billion. This is a significant and decisive economic response to deal with these extraordinary economic times. The tough decision made in the May budget to build up a surplus was a decision that we can applaud, as we now have a significant buffer to help us through this period of financial stress.

Supplementary estimates Appropriation Bill (No.1) seeks a total appropriation of $146.054 million for initiatives to assist Australians in their education, their housing and their general cost of living. Over $117 million will be invested in 56,000 additional productivity job seeker places in 2008-09. This funding for the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations is for certificate 2, 3 and 4 levels.

In the next two years, this government will make a total additional commitment of over $187 million to help develop the skills that Australian industry really needs. We are determined not to take the easy way out on skills. We are determined to ensure that never again will there be a crisis of skills in this country that weakens the economic capacity of the nation—a legacy of the Howard government, to depend on 456 and 457 visas to provide the skill base for the economy. The Howard government abysmally failed to deal with the skills issue in this country. The opposition parade around trying to pretend they were good economic managers—when they failed the economy, they failed the country and they failed the nation on this key economic issue. By expanding our approach to skills we will develop a stronger economy, an economy that can withstand international economic shocks in a way that the Liberal Party could never, ever dream of. (Time expired)