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Thursday, 18 October 2018
Page: 7643

Senator WATT (Queensland) (16:44): I will ultimately be speaking against this bill, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Ending the Poverty Trap) Bill 2018, but I do want to take the opportunity to outline my very real concerns and those of the opposition as to the need for an increase in the Newstart rate. I want to make very clear at the outset that there is no disagreement whatsoever from the federal opposition that the current Newstart rate is too low. However, for reasons that I will explain over the course of this contribution, we don't believe that the bill that the Greens are putting forward here is the way to deal with the very real issues that people receiving Newstart face.

There have already been some contributions in this debate which have acknowledged the rising level of inequality that we see in Australia. While that rising level of inequality is obviously very disturbing, what is good is to see a growing acknowledgement of that across the community. This is something that many people on our side of politics have been trying to draw to the attention of the community, the media and the government for many years now, and it's only in recent times, I think, that there has been wide recognition that growing inequality is a very real problem in Australia.

Even if you are fortunate enough to be in work in this country, too many working Australians are faced with the risk of their position becoming more unequal in society, and that is largely as a result of the stagnant wage growth that we have seen in this country in recent years. This is something that I have spoken about on a number of occasions, as have my colleagues. What is really remarkable about the Australian economy in recent years is that, while it does continue to grow in an overall sense, the average Australian working person is not getting to share in that growth by way of increased wages. Someone is benefiting from the increased economic growth that we're experiencing in this country and the increased profits that companies are recording, but it's not working people, who are obviously doing so much to contribute to those profits. The increased growth that we're seeing in this country is increasingly going to shareholders and the top end of income earners and not to average working people, let alone those who are unable to find work.

Beyond the issue of stagnant wages, we also see inequality hitting working people in the form of the rising level of insecure work that we find in the economy. I know this is something that the government is sensitive about and that they don't like being told about facts and figures which demonstrate this. They want to have an argument about whether casualisation has increased or not. But, if you look at the various different categories of insecure work that exist these days—whether it be casual work, part-time work undertaken when someone doesn't really want part-time work, labour hire or short-term contracts—statistics that have come out over the course of this year, particularly from the Centre for Future Work, indicate that, for the first time in Australia's recorded history, we now have greater than 50 per cent of the Australian working population working in a form that does not provide them with full-time work with guaranteed leave benefits. Again, if you break that down, it might be that they're casuals, it might be that they're labour hire, it might be that they're short-term contractors or it might be that people are working part time when they want full-time work. But, when you pool all of that together, for the very first time in Australian recorded history, there are more people working in some form of insecure employment in this country than those who are fortunate enough to have full-time, permanent, secure work. That is a crisis that is affecting many working people in Australia, and it is undoubtedly contributing to the fact that wages in this country are just not growing under this government.

Even over the course of the last few days, we've seen this government not content to allow the independent umpire to reach a decision about casualisation of work. There has been a recent decision by the independent umpire in the WorkPac and Skene case, which found that particular workers were not validly described as casual. If you looked at the way that they worked and the terms and conditions of their employment, they shouldn't have been treated as casual and they should have been entitled to other additional benefits, particularly in the form of leave. Rather than accepting that there are Australians who are being employed in a manner which is not casual, as their employer claims, the government have just announced, I think today, that they are going to intervene in the appeal that has been undertaken in that case. They want to join with big business in keeping more people stuck in a casual form of employment—without job security, without leave benefits, without all of the other benefits of permanent employment—instead of actually standing on the side of working people and guaranteeing them some level of security. It is extremely disappointing to see this government take that position.

Pleasingly, the unemployment figures that came out today did show a small decrease in the overall number of unemployed people, from 5.3 per cent to five per cent. But what the government wasn't as keen to talk about was that some of that decrease, if not all of it, is due to the fact that the participation rate, the number of people who are actively looking for work, has also fallen, from 65.7 per cent last month to 65.4 per cent this month. So it's no surprise that the number of people who are unemployed in this country has fallen, when there are a greater number of people who have given up even bothering to look for work because they're so despondent about their chances. That is the sort of thing that the government needs to be fixing.

To this day, we continue to have over a million Australians who are underemployed—who are not able to find the amount of work they are looking for. They might be getting five hours, 10 hours or 20 hours a week and they want to work more, but they are unable to because the work isn't there. The government needs to be careful about crowing about its unemployment statistics when in fact so many people have given up the effort of looking for work, because they can't find it, and when over one million people want more work than they are able to find. These people can't be described as dole bludgers; they are actively looking for work and cannot find the amount of work they are after.

I noticed another report that came out today that is relevant to this topic, and that was a report released by Anglicare. Now, not all unemployed people are looking for entry-level positions or low-skilled positions. Obviously there are people with a high level of skills who go through a period of unemployment from time to time, but, equally, there are a large number of people who are unemployed for a long period of time and are looking for an entry-level job simply to break into the workforce. It was very concerning to see this Anglicare report today, which showed that the latest figures are that, in Australia, there are four jobseekers for every entry-level job that exists. I'm not going to get these figures exactly right, but, from memory, the current figures show that there are about 25,000 vacant entry-level jobs in Australia and there are over 100,000 jobseekers who are looking for entry-level positions and are unable to find them. So, even if we accepted the argument that we sometimes hear from conservative commentators and members of this government, that unemployed people just aren't trying hard enough to find work, the facts show that that is clearly not the case: 25,000 or so entry-level jobs for 100,000 people looking for an entry-level position. People are sincerely trying to find work, and the jobs are just not there, because under this government the economy is not strong enough to produce those jobs.

Undoubtedly, inequality remains a genuine problem in this country, whether we're talking about working people whose wages are not rising or who are facing insecure work, or whether we're talking about people who are unable to find work—and, no doubt, they are the people in our community who are the most disadvantaged and most in need of the support of a government that is on their side. Unfortunately, they don't have a government on their side with this government.

As I said, the federal opposition absolutely recognises that the rate of Newstart is too low. I will just give you a couple of case studies that I found in a recent SBS online article. A woman by the name of Judy, 62 years of age, who has been on Newstart for nearly a year, says that she often has cereal as a meal for dinner, and she basically just hibernates because she has so little money to live a decent life. She is surviving on less than $300 a week and she says:

… it's frightening to think anybody can live like that when you've got to pay the mortgage, your utilities and incidentals …

A student in Canberra, Jarryd, said that he'd only recently started working in a supermarket and, as a result of getting some earnings, has lost some of his Newstart—and we understand that's how the system works. He says that his Newstart 'pays rent for the fortnight and doesn't do much more than that'. He had to eat $5 McDonald's meals for about a week because he couldn't afford anything else.

I don't think that anyone in this overall very wealthy country that we have the good fortune to live in wants to see other Australians live in those conditions. Again, it can't simply be dismissed—as so often occurs—as these people just not trying to look for work, when I'm able to show those figures that have come through from Anglicare, showing that so many more people are looking for entry-level jobs than there are jobs for them to go into. So it's those sorts of case studies that show that we need to increase the rate of Newstart and that the current rate is too low.

Having said that, the opposition does not support this bill, and I have to say we think that putting it forward is nothing more than a stunt from the Greens. I have no reason to disbelieve Senator Siewert's good intentions about the need to increase the rate of Newstart, but the Greens know very well that this bill has absolutely no prospect of getting through the House of Representatives. I'm not aware of them having made any attempt to negotiate with the government to see what is possible and what the government will agree to. So, however many speeches we hear from Greens senators over the course of this debate about the need for this bill to go through, there is zero prospect of it happening. A much better idea would be to work with the opposition and with government senators to see what can actually be done in reality, rather than just plonking a bill in here that has no chance of being accepted.

As I say, the opposition absolutely acknowledges the need for the rate of Newstart to increase and that it is too low, but we think that it is important to do a proper review of the Newstart payment to see not only what is the right rate for it to be increased by but also, most importantly, how that should be paid for. That is, of course, one of the things that you will always see that are different between the Labor Party and the Greens party. As a party that aspires to be in government, we acknowledge that, if you're going to increase expenditure, you've got to pay for it in some way. It's one of the luxuries of being a minor party, as the Greens are, that you never have to really be accountable for your decisions. You can come in here and put forward all sorts of bills that will spend all sorts of amounts of money, and it's never your problem to find out how that should be paid for. Labor is actually serious about it. Labor does want to increase the rate of Newstart, but we also want to see how it can be paid for.

Most importantly, there are many more issues with the current Newstart system than simply the amount of payment that is made. We could increase the rate of payment by the amount that the Greens are putting forward here and still not deal with some of the fundamental problems that exist with the Newstart payment. In the remaining couple of minutes that I have, I might just make a couple of points that we made in the recent future of work inquiry that I chaired and that a number of other senators participated in.

One of the really interesting things that came out of that inquiry, I think, was that, as well as thinking about the future of work in terms of what the influence of technology and automation is going to be on jobs and what jobs will go and what jobs will stay, we also need to be thinking about what kind of social security system we need in an environment where more people are juggling multiple part-time, insecure jobs. There are a range of things that we talked about in that report that we should do to change the laws to reduce the number of people who are facing insecure employment. But, for those people who do face situations where they come in and out of casual or part-time work, with a few hours here and a few hours there, it is very clear from the work that we did in that inquiry that the current Newstart system does not give enough acknowledgement to current circumstances.

The current Newstart system and payment were created in a world long ago where most people worked on a full-time permanent basis. As I've already said in my speech, we're now living in a world where, shockingly, more than 50 per cent of the Australian workforce does not work in full-time permanent work. So, if the world has changed, we also need to look at how our Newstart system works to make sure that it is coping and is designed in a way that acknowledges that people are working in different manners. We need to make sure that it responds to a world where someone might be working 40 hours one week and five hours the next week. We should be trying to eliminate situations where people end up racking up massive overpayments because the system hasn't been flexible enough to respond to the fact that some people are working lots of hours one week and not so many the next week. We need a system which acknowledges that some people gain a lot more work on a casual basis over the Christmas period, whether it be in retail or in other areas.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator O'Sullivan ): The time for the debate has expired. Do you want to be in continuation?

Senator WATT: Yes, please. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate interrupted.