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Wednesday, 1 October 2014
Page: 7414


Senator McEWEN (South AustraliaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (09:56): I am pleased to be able to make a contribution today to the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 1) Bill 2014 and the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 2) Bill 2014. As we know, the 2014-15 federal budget was a tough, unfair and cruel budget for most Australians. That probably explains why we are here, in September, some months after the budget was released and the budget still has not got through the Senate chamber. The people of Australia understand what a harsh and punitive budget it is, as do we on this side of the chamber and, apparently, our crossbench colleagues.

As well as the well-known inclusions—like the GP tax and much publicised increase to university fees that will particularly disadvantage women—families, the elderly, the unemployed and those with a disability will be hit even harder if this legislation passes through the Senate. The Community Affairs Legislation Committee investigated these bills and Labor senators put in a dissenting report which goes to the issue of the Abbott government's justification to introduce its punitive and harsh federal budget—that is, that there is some economic crisis in Australia and that welfare spending is out of control. Labor senators in their dissenting report to the Community Affairs Legislation Committee report clearly outlined that there is no budget emergency in Australia to justify such harsh cuts and that welfare spending is not out of control in Australia. That cannot be used as a justification for the harsh cuts in this budget. In fact, Labor senators pointed out that Australia's fiscal position remains fundamentally strong and that Australia has a low debt to GDP ratio, a AAA credit rating from all of the major rating agencies, low inflation and relatively low unemployment. We do not accept that there is justification for these cuts.

So you would have to ask: why are the government targeting the already most disadvantaged people in our community through their budget cuts? Why didn't they implement a budget that went after the big corporate end of town who, as we have heard this week, are seriously good at avoiding paying income tax? And why did they repeal good legislation like the mining resource rent tax that meant that big corporates would pay their fair share of tax on Australia's mineral resources? They took what they thought was going to be the easy option and targeted people who were already doing it tough and now they have come up against the Australian public, who do not like that kind of attitude from their government. They believe that a government should look after the people in our community who most need it.

Some of the most appalling aspects of these bills are in their sphere of income support for people who are unemployed or on a pension. If these bills were to pass the Senate, many young job seekers would be forced to live without any income for six months each year. I made some comments about that in my adjournment speech last night, but I reiterate that that situation would be catastrophic for young people. It would lead to more homelessness and financial crisis for young people and, if they had any income or support, they would have to manage it to the extent where they would probably forgo medical care—and, even worse, would they be able to feed themselves? It potentially makes it much harder for young unemployed people to find a job if they are unable to afford public transport to get to a job interview or, as I said last night, unable to afford suitable clothing or a haircut to make themselves presentable for a job. There is no indication anywhere that such measures actually assist young people who are unemployed for extensive periods of time back into work. We know that what does work with young people who are unemployed is intensive case management and real support to get into jobs.

We note also that the proposed changes to the family tax benefits will inflict more pressure and hardship on families, especially low-income earners and single parents, who already struggle to find the money necessary to support their children going to school and accessing health services for them. The proposed changes to eligibility requirements mean that the value of pensions will decrease over time and that people will have to wait longer to receive the age pension, Increasing the age at which people can receive the age pension to 70 years by 2035 will also cause hardships and suffering for many Australians, especially for lower-income earners and blue-collar workers, who physically cannot work longer than they already do.

Newstart allowance recipients who leave a job or refuse work without good reason will no longer be able to have the resultant eight weeks of nonpayment waived on hardship grounds, and those who do not meet the onerous activity requirements proposed by the government will only be able to have the eight-week penalty waived once during each of their periods on Newstart. Eight weeks is too long to deny people support. Again there is no justification for this and no hard evidence to suggest how this would actually help people back into the workforce.

I note also changes in the portability allowance for disability support pensioners that will see people's DSP payment cancelled if they are overseas for longer than four weeks. That measure, combined with a number of other changes that will adversely affect people with disability and their carers—including indexing the disability support pension and the carer payment by CPI only and cessation of the pensioner education supplement—is basically not fair. Australians do not choose to become disabled, but the government seems intent on implementing measures that punish them for being disabled.

Labor senators will of course oppose the majority of the measures in these bills. As the report from Labor senators on the Senate Community Affairs Committee inquiry into these bills suggests, there are some measures that may get Labor support but, overall, Labor senators are opposed to this budget and the dreadful things that it contains. I am sure that all senators have been receiving considerable correspondence from constituents about the likely impacts of these budget measures upon them. I thank all those constituents who have written to me about their concerns about what will happen to them and their family situations if these punitive budget measures get through.

I note one email correspondence, Michael, who said in an email to me: 'As a person who has to be very careful to make ends meet on the pension, I am not sure how I would manage if my income was reduced in any way. I understand that the proposed changes to the way the pension is indexed would mean a cut of $80 a week over 10 years to the single pension, which seems like a huge amount when it is already a stretch for me to pay my bills, buy my groceries and get to important appointments.' There are many other emails along the same line from constituents just like Michael who are already doing it tough. Frankly, for those of us in here, $80 a week is probably not a lot of money. But for someone like Michael, who has to think twice about whether he can afford that bus ticket or whether he can afford to go to the doctor and pay that $7 GP tax, it is a very large amount of money. As a compassionate nation and a very wealthy nation, we should be supporting people like Michael. We should be using our wealth to support people like Michael. We should not have governments that attack people like Michael.

I mentioned Michael. Of course, it is not just Michael who is saying that this is a bad budget. Organisations like ACOSS have been very critical of the budget. I note that the CEO of ACOSS, the Australian Council of Social Services, Dr Cassandra Goldie, has said that changes to the pensions proposed in these bills reduce further increases in pensions for the poorest older people, in effect freezing the real value of the maximum rate of the age pension, and she mentions the $80 a week as well. ACOSS, as we know, works very hard to support low-income and welfare recipients in Australia. I thank them for their work. ACOSS notes that pensioners who already live on around $20,000 a year just cannot afford any further cuts or reductions in their age pension income or in the way age pensions are calculated. Labor is very passionate about protecting age pensions. When we were in government, we worked very hard to ensure the biggest increase in the age pensions for more than 100 years. I well remember many pensioners writing and thanking the Labor Party senators and members of parliament who worked very hard to manage our budgets to ensure that pensions and pension increases were a focus.

I will conclude my remarks shortly, partly because I do not think my voice is going to hold up much longer. I am pleased to stand with other Labor senators in opposing the harshest aspects of the Abbott government's federal budget. There are no redeeming features of the budget. It is an unnecessary budget. We know that Treasurer Hockey is getting himself into all kinds of contortions today to try and explain why this budget has not been passed by the Senate. He is putting a lot of pressure on the Senate crossbenchers to cave in and accept some of the worst aspects of this budget, particularly in regard to pensions and how the budget treats welfare recipients including unemployed people, especially young unemployed people. I urge our crossbench senators to remain resolute and strong and join with the Labor Party to oppose the worst excesses of the Abbott government's current federal budget.