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Monday, 5 September 2022
Page: 746

Senator BARBARA POCOCK (South Australia) (22:05): Last week I attended the Jobs and Skills Summit here in this building. It occurred at a critical moment in our history in terms of the state of our economy and our labour market. We're in a circumstance where wages have stalled and we've had 10 years without an increase in real wages. We have a broken system of enterprise bargaining. As academics at the summit pointed out, only 11 per cent of Australian workers in the private sector are now covered by enterprise agreements. We have a gender pay gap that's too wide—unacceptably stuck at the level it has been at now for some decades—and we haven't narrowed it in recent years, despite women's increasing participation in education. They're coming out of universities with more degrees, but we're not seeing an improvement in their pay. We've seen a massive shift in corporate power, reflected in the very high levels of profit as a share of GDP, while the wages share is at an all-time low.

We face a crisis of inequality. There are too many kids being left behind. We face a widening gap in salaries, as top executives pull away with big pay rises and ordinary Australians are stalled on falling real incomes. We face a crisis in inequality, with too many kids in households where there isn't enough food in the fridge. There are too many people living in poverty. Amongst many of the working poor there is insecurity of jobs, insecurity of hours and insecurity of shifts. And there are too many Australians trying to live on income support at the level of $46 a day in a country that is amongst the wealthiest on the planet.

We have a cost-of-living crisis underway, with prices outpacing wages growth, and so many people are under pressure trying to meet housing costs, rising rent and runaway transport, food, health and childcare costs. In my own office, in Adelaide, issues around rent and housing costs are amongst the most common that we are hearing at present.

At the same time, we have a crisis underway in our education system for many people, with our kids coming out of universities with a level of debt now at an average of $24,000 and others struggling to find their way through a complex VET system, which also costs them a lot and results in very low rates of course completion for too many Australians.

These outcomes are not random. They are not natural. They arise from public policy decisions. They can be traced right back to John Howard in 1996 and subsequent governments who have taken policy decisions that have resulted in widening inequality, leaving too many Australians behind.

We know that we can change these outcomes with different policies, and that's the challenge that was really at the front and fore of the summit in last week's conversations. It was a national conversation that this building hasn't seen for over a decade. We've much more commonly witnessed conversations of corporate triumph and widening inequality.

The summit pulled some very unexpected voices into the room—for example, people who are living with disability, who had many things to say about how they're treated in the workplace and how difficult it is to find your way into existing cultures in too many of our enterprises, and young people and immigrants subject to discrimination and wage theft, who talked about the challenge they're finding in trying to get justice to recover lost wages, often facing appalling treatment.

The summit also witnessed the need to ensure that those who come to work here from overseas get access to full citizenship and permanency. Stories were heard of those living on income support struggling to put together a life of care for themselves and their loved ones.

There was an important and extended conversation about the situation of women—their low rates of labour participation; the double day so many face, with an unpaid care load on top of a job; and the absence of a quality, affordable early education and childcare system, and alongside it a very poor level of paid parental leave and the price this creates not only for women and for children but for households and for our economy. Of course, the value of the summit lies not so much in its conversations but in what it achieves and the action that results. Women made up the first panel in the summit, and the picture was grim. We've seen a big increase in the share of the services sector of our economy and in the care economy, and a decline in agriculture and manufacturing, but without rewards flowing fairly to women.

We particularly saw repetitive conversations over the period of the summit on two issues that are incredibly important to the growing numbers of women who are holding down jobs in Australian society. The first issue was early childhood education and care. It was perhaps the most commonly mentioned issue by a wide range of participants, the need to invest more heavily in the care of our kids to make access to child care more affordable, to confront the childcare deserts which are peppered across our country and to lift the pay of workers in the childcare sector and draw more people into a sector which is struggling to hang on to, let alone recruit, the growing number of carers and skilled workers that that sector requires. The absence of investing properly in this part of our economy and our society is resulting in much lower rates of participation of women, relative to similar OECD countries, and a big cost to our GDP and our country. Most importantly, it's affecting the quality of life and the long-term life chances of many of our kids. So we have a big agenda in front of us on child care, and we really should be turning our attention much more aggressively and assertively towards policy that addresses this issue.

The second really important question that was frequently discussed at the summit was the question of paid parental leave, the way in which we look after families and especially new parents and mothers at the moment of birth. I was lucky enough to work with Senator Natasha Stott Despoja in 2001, when she brought to this Senate a private member's bill to establish the first paid parental leave scheme. Ten years after that private member's bill Australia finally entered the developed world and gave new parents, mothers, a paid rest after the birth of a child. Ten years later we find ourselves once again at the bottom of the international rankings in terms of the amount of paid parental leave we give to new parents. We know from a very big and growing body of literature about the consequences of not properly looking after kids when their parents are working at the time that children are born. It has a big effect on their cognitive capability later in life, and researchers in the US and internationally have shown that a dollar spent on providing leave, for example, for a mother and quality child care at the time of a child's birth will result in a saving of $7 later in that child's life. This is one of the most important and lucrative investments we can make as a community. We are failing to make those investments now and we're paying a price, especially women, in terms of access to economic opportunities, but also our economy, in terms of outcomes for our children.

The summit spent a lot of time looking at the circumstances and situations of women, and it created a very powerful argument for both investment in early childhood education and care and in paid parental leave. Very disappointingly, in the outcomes of the summit, which are many—and many of them are very laudable and deal with a wide range of issues—they did not go to the questions of early childhood education and care or growing our paid parental leave system. The real test for the summit outcomes for many women and families and households lies in giving relief from cost-of-living pressures through free child care, which is something our country can afford right now in terms of the stage 3 tax cuts which could be so easily turned to these kinds of investments. That would make such a difference to the lives of women and our economy into the future.

Thinking about the summit and its outcomes, it was a very important and valuable period of discussion. But the real test lies in whether we're able to make advances on some of the most discussed issues at the summit and issues for many women in the room. They made up half the delegates in this conference, a big contrast with the 1983 Hawke and Keating summit where only one of the 93 delegates was a woman. Women were there, they were heard, they spoke up. The test is: will we see action on some really important areas of change and will we see the investment of the stage 3 tax cuts in these kinds of provisions that will make such a difference for women and really address gender inequality?

We can contrast positive outcomes for women from better childcare outcomes and paid parental leave with the fact that those stage 3 tax cuts will deliver $2 to men for every $1 they give to women. So there are a lot of challenges there for us. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. I hope we're going to see much stronger action in coming budgets for the women of Australia.