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Monday, 11 November 2019
Page: 3491


Senator BILYK (Tasmania) (17:54): As I was saying before, the government talk about being good economic managers as if Australians will just take it on faith that that's what they are, but Australians are really seeing through this charade. We're facing a period of record low wage growth. The Liberal government has doubled net debt, and gross debt has reached half a trillion dollars for the first time in history. The costs of household essentials, private health insurance, electricity and child care are going through the roof. Household living standards are going backwards. Real household median income is lower now than it was when the Liberals came to power. Household net debt has grown by $650 billion to a record high of 190 per cent of household income. Economic growth is the slowest it has been since the global financial crisis, and 1.9 million Australians are looking for work or for more work. Consumer confidence is down. Business investment and retail sales growth have fallen to their lowest levels since the 1990s recession. Under Labor, Australia was the eighth-fastest growing economy in the OECD. Under the Liberals we've fallen to 20th. Just last week the Reserve Bank downgraded its forecast for economic growth for the third time in six months. In its statement the RBA said:

… a defining feature of economic developments over the past several years has been very slow growth in household income.

…   …   …

… consumption has been significantly weaker than expected …

It has joined the IMF and the OECD in downgrading their forecasts for Australia's economic growth.

I ask those opposite: do all the facts I've just outlined paint a picture of the strong economy Mr Morrison keeps talking about? If you listened to those opposite, you'd think running a budget surplus is the be-all and end-all of economic management—not that those opposite have delivered a surplus. They are in their third term and their sixth budget and they are talking up a surplus, but what they have delivered is a forecast of a surplus at the end of the financial year. Even if those opposite deliver their promised surplus at the end of the year, it's by no means a cause for celebration, particularly when it's built on a $4.6 billion underspend in the NDIS, depriving some of Australia's most vulnerable people of the services they need to lead a dignified life. Running a surplus budget is not a proxy for good economic management. It doesn't, in and of itself, deliver on boosting the productive capacity of the economy. It doesn't help to build a national broadband network that uses 21st century technology and makes Australia competitive in the global digital economy. It doesn't reinstate the funding cut from TAFE, traineeships and apprenticeships to ensure Australians get the skills they need to participate in the labour market. It doesn't drive research, development and innovation. It doesn't help replace the $2.2 billion cut from Australia's universities, which will result in 200,000 young Australians missing out on university over the next decade.

Let's not forget that only recently those opposite were trying to convince us that the way to stimulate economic growth was to give a tax cut to multinationals and the big banks. If you believe that then you might as well believe in fairies and unicorns. While those opposite will regularly offer their gratuitous advice about economic management, they are the last people on earth I would be taking advice from. Even if we accepted the claim of those opposite, against the overwhelming weight of evidence to the contrary, that they are good economic managers, we should also recognise that economic management is not an end in itself. Ultimately, government is about improving the lives of the people you represent. The economy doesn't deliver this on its own, unless you subscribe to the outdated and discredited theory of trickle-down economics. While those opposite have successfully deluded themselves into thinking that they are superior economic managers, surely they can't be so brazen as to claim that they are making Australians' lives better. A budget surplus is nothing to celebrate when it's delivered at the expense of some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in Australia and when it's delivered through cuts to the essential services that Australians rely on for their quality of life.

A case in point is our aged-care system, which is falling apart. It's often said that the greatness of a nation is measured by how it treats its weakest or most vulnerable members. Older Australians in need of aged care are some of the most vulnerable people in our country, and, at the moment, they are being treated appallingly. While the aged-care royal commission has shone a light on many of these issues, it was known well before the commission that the aged-care system in Australia was in crisis. The Morrison government has failed to heed our call to combat the problems caused by its own mismanagement: the abuse that is occurring in residential aged-care facilities; the instances of providers spending just $6 a day to feed their residents; and the widespread overuse of chemical restraints. The government has 12 reports on the aged-care sector sitting on its desks, gathering dust.

After ripping billions of dollars out of aged care, the Morrison government needs to take responsibility for its contribution to the crisis. It needs to take responsibility for the 120,000 Australians who are sitting on a waiting list to receive the home care packages they've already been approved for. It needs to take responsibility for the fact that those on the waiting list with the highest care needs are languishing for up to two years before receiving their package. Sadly, 16,000 older Australians died before receiving the home care packages they had been approved for, while another 14,000 who would have stayed in their homes had they received the support they had been approved for went into residential care. If the government cannot fix the crisis now, then I shudder to think what is yet to come. It is estimated that Australia will need a workforce of a million aged-care workers to meet the demand for aged care in 2050, yet this government can't even address the current demand.

Another vulnerable group of Australians is people with disability. To prop up its budget surplus, this government has underspent on the National Disability Insurance Scheme by $4.6 billion this financial year. It has done this at a time when NDIS participants are waiting months to receive plans or have their plans reviewed. As I've mentioned before in this place, I recently attended a forum with the shadow minister for the NDIS, Bill Shorten, and the Tasmanian shadow minister for disability, Jo Siejka, where we spoke with NDIS participants and their families and carers. This system is failing many of them. There is universal agreement among families and carers that the concept of the NDIS, introduced by the previous Labor government, was an important and necessary reform—one with the potential to make the lives of people with disability, their families and their carers a whole lot better. However, due to this government's poor management, we have a system that is bogged down in bureaucracy where people are not getting the support they need. Even when they are, it's being delivered far too late.

When a child is born needing immediate assistance from the NDIS, they should not have to wait until they are six months old to get a plan approved. When a person with disability has a six-month plan in place, their families and carers should not have to immediately start work on the review of that plan just to make sure it gets done in time before the current plan expires. There really should be a way to ensure that every person who is eligible for the NDIS can get the support they need. In my home state of Tasmania, only 6,500 people are participating in the NDIS when an estimated 11,000 are eligible.

Those opposite are responsible for the mess that has been made of the NDIS, and they need to fix it now. Did the government really think it could underspend on the NDIS by $4.6 billion and there wouldn't be any consequences? Budgets are all about choice. I would argue that the government could still have its surplus without having to target some of the most vulnerable people in Australia. I remind those opposite that, in the wake of the global financial crisis, Labor found over $250 billion in savings without targeting disadvantaged and vulnerable Australians the way that the Liberals zealously do time and time again. Even if they are too lazy or incompetent to find those savings, I'm sure most Australians would agree that underspending on the NDIS by $4.6 billion to prop up the government's surplus is just downright cruel.

There are many other examples of the government's cruelty. Another case in point is their steadfast refusal to increase Newstart Allowance. In my home state of Tasmania, there is a housing and homelessness crisis fed by a saturated rental market. Median rents in Hobart have reached $464 a week—the third highest of the capital cities, overtaking Melbourne. If the median rent in Hobart is $464 a week, it's no wonder people on Newstart struggle to find housing on an income of $280 a week. It's hard enough paying rent on Newstart without meeting other basic living expenses, as well as all the expenses associated with finding a job, such as travelling to interviews, wearing presentable clothes and printing copies of your resume. We keep getting told by Liberal frontbenchers that Newstart is a transitional payment, but there's nothing transitional about a payment that jobseekers live on for an average of three years.

If those opposite will not listen to Newstart recipients themselves, will not listen to the evidence that has been furnished in Senate inquiries, and will not listen to welfare agencies or their peak bodies, like ACOSS, who work with people living in poverty on a daily basis, then perhaps they will listen to the Liberal Premier of Tasmania, Will Hodgman. On ABC Radio, only last week, when asked about his views on increasing Newstart, Mr Hodgman said:

… certainly in Tasmania we have a higher proportion - share on Newstart and other social security benefits. So, of course, we would welcome any increase to support to those Tasmanians.

When further pressed on it, Mr Hodgman said:

… it would be a good thing to see those on low incomes and those who do depend on social security benefits to have an increase to reduce that pressure in their lives … And of course if the Commonwealth government can do that, we'd welcome it.

I appreciate Premier Hodgman's honesty on this issue because he knows it's impossible to live on $40 a day. I'm sure those opposite know it too, even if they cannot bring themselves to admit it. I often hear those on the other side of the chamber dodge questions about whether they could live on $40 a day. Of course they couldn't. One or two of them complained, in fact, that they can't even live on their parliamentary salaries. For heaven's sake! Everyone in this place knows that Newstart needs to be increased. Those opposite know it but they just won't admit it. It's bad enough that they won't admit it without comments like those of the Minister for Families and Social Services, who said that any increase will just end up in pubs and in the hands of drug dealers. What an outrageous statement to make about some of Australia's most disadvantaged social security recipients.

Another form of cruelty this government is inflicting on our most vulnerable people is the debacle of the automated debt recovery system. This government has been at the helm of the robo-debt system, which has been described as extortion. These aren't Labor words; they are the words of the retired Administrative Appeals Tribunal member, Terry Carney, and 'extortion' is a very apt description. What else would you call it when you accuse someone of having a debt and then put the onus on them to produce the evidence to prove otherwise? Given the cuts the government has made to Centrelink services, the difficulty Australians are having accessing face-to-face services, and the horrendous wait times that are experienced on the phone to Centrelink, I wonder how many recipients of a robo-debt notice actually don't owe the debt but have simply given up fighting it. Every time a robo-debt case has been advanced to the AAT—guess what—the government has settled. It means there's never been an opportunity to test the legality of the system. Yet the government still can't admit that they got this wrong.

A cruel system like robo-debt, the government's refusal to increase Newstart, the underspend on the NDIS and the cruel cuts to aged care are all indications of the rotten black heart at the core of this government. It is at the core of Liberal philosophy that whenever there is a buck to be saved by targeting the most desperate, most disadvantaged and the most vulnerable people in the community, those opposite will take it. Looking after the most vulnerable people in the community is surely what government should be about. But not this government.

The Morrison government is also asleep at the wheel when it comes to the challenge of taking serious action on climate change. When the government's lack of a plan to tackle carbon pollution is exposed, they twist the facts to suit themselves. Mr Morrison keeps claiming the government will meet their Paris Agreement targets 'in a canter'. Well, I tell you, the reality is this: the government isn't cantering towards their Paris targets; they're galloping in the opposite direction. Whatever weasel words the Morrison government uses to pretend they're on track to meet their Paris targets, the undeniable truth is that emissions were falling year on year under Labor and they have risen every year under the coalition. They are projected to continue to rise, according to the government's own figures, every year until 2030. Ten industry associations recently signed an open letter which points the finger squarely at the Morrison government's inadequate policy for this failure, and the letter, whose signatories include the Australian Industry Group and the National Farmers Federation, says the government's policy will not reduce the emissions economy-wide due to:

… the cost and complexity of engaging with the ERF; the shallow and monopolistic market for credits; and the lack of clear long term ambition.

This is hardly a resounding endorsement of the government's policy.

Nothing in the government's budget seriously addresses climate change because the government isn't doing anything serious. This are a government that pretends to act on climate change because they know Australian voters are overwhelmingly concerned and calling for action. At the same time, they do nothing because they are ruled by climate change deniers. The policy they have now is from the Abbott era, dreamt up by a man who said he was unconvinced by the science on climate change and was voted out of parliament on a wave of enthusiasm for action on climate change. If you ask the question, 'What is this government about?' it's hard to figure out exactly what they are setting out to achieve. Tony Abbott once famously described the Turnbull government as being in office but not in power. Now we have a government that's in power but not governing. It's a government that is overseeing a tanking economy but has no plan to turn it around. It's a government facing a climate emergency but has no plan to take real action on climate change. It's a government that has no plans to address the crisis in aged or disability care or to address the growing levels of poverty and inequality faced by Australians. They have no plans, no ideas, no agenda, and many Australians are left scratching their heads and thinking: what is the point of the Morrison government? With 2½ years left of this third-term, do-nothing government, it's high time it actually started governing.