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Monday, 12 November 2018
Page: 7675


Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (10:39): I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Productivity Commission Amendment (Addressing Inequality) Bill 2017. I sat here and listened to senators, most recently Senator Smith, talking about inequality and poverty in this country, quoting figures, for example, from the Productivity Commission report on income inequality. While there was some very useful data in that report, what I'm deeply concerned about is quoting the Productivity Commission and the misinterpretation of some of the issues that came up in the Productivity Commission report on inequality, and also quoting the HILDA data and the Gini coefficient. When you actually look into the issues around inequality, you can mask the impact on particular cohorts of Australians who certainly are not doing better. If you look at the figures in terms of the concentration of wealth in this country, you see that in fact the situation isn't as rosy as the government likes to paint it. If you look at the fact that Australia is considered by many now to be the second wealthiest country in the world, poverty rates in this country remain very high. We've just gone through Anti-Poverty Week in October, the week before estimates. When we were looking at Anti-Poverty Week we heard how poverty is affecting so many Australians. Yet you get up here and listen to the government senators and you would think everything was sweet.

They're ignoring the fact that poverty rates are remaining stubbornly high, with around three million Australians who are suffering deprivation and do not have a good quality of life. There are three million people in Australia living below the poverty line, of whom 739,000 are children. Inequality is baked into our system. When you look at the income share of the top one per cent in Australia, it has doubled. The top 20 per cent now own half of Australia's total wealth. That concentration is growing at a rate that is one of the highest in the world.

If you look at the recent Productivity Commission report, the way some people are interpreting it suggests that inequality hasn't got any worse in recent years, based on analysis that basically compares the incomes of the highest decile and the lowest decile—in other words, the bottom 10 per cent versus the middle versus the top 10 per cent. The problem with this particular methodology is that it masks what's going on in the analysis for specific vulnerable groups—those vulnerable groups that I was talking about. It is also completely at odds with the reports that you get from the front-line services—Foodbank, for example. I'm going to come back to Foodbank, because we've just heard that it has had its funding cut again.

If you look at some of the figures from that report and some of the other figures that are quoted, particularly when the Gini coefficient is quoted—it is often misquoted, and it is quite a difficult coefficient to understand—you look at what happened when the age pension increased. I am not for one minute saying that that was not a good outcome. It was a good outcome when the Rudd government increased the age pension. It was something that the Greens had been campaigning for; Senator Bob Brown in particular had been campaigning for it for a long time. Because there were so many age pensions that got that very needed boost, it masked some of the impacts on some of those other vulnerable groups moving more and more into poverty. That increase made the figures look a lot better for that particular group of people that had been living in poverty. Given that we also have a much better indexation rate for the age pension, that has helped that group of people deal with poverty better. That's not to say there are not aged pensioners living in poverty, because there are, particularly if you are a single woman. A lot of them are really struggling as they move into older age, particularly those who are unemployed and have used up their savings. They are moving onto the age pension in poverty.

Basically, it's masking those who are unemployed, single parents and those with a disability who should be on the disability support pension but are in fact on Newstart because of the change in the eligibility tables. Age pensioners have been better off over the term that we've been talking about—from the early noughties through to now—because of that increase, but the government is trying to wipe the slate and say, 'People aren't living in poverty anymore.' It's just not true. That is skewing the figures and masking the fact that, if you are living on Newstart, you are living in poverty. We have to raise the rate of Newstart by $75 a week.

There have been a number of very learned articles about the fact that it is easy to misquote the figures to make them look better without looking at those vulnerable cohorts who are really struggling, such as those on Newstart and single parents. We know from analysis that the poverty rate of children of single parents—and we know that the bulk of those are single mothers—has significantly increased since single mothers were dropped off parenting payment single onto Newstart.

I promised I would make this contribution short, but let's quickly look at, for example, the stats coming through from Foodbank. Their hunger report was released just a couple of weeks ago. The number of people that they are servicing went up five per cent in the 12 months from 2017 to 2018. There has been an increased call for their services. They are providing a valuable service to feed those people who aren't able to put food on the table, because they are living in poverty. And what has this government done? It has cut their funding again. It is outrageous. You only have to visit their services, which I did recently, to see what an excellent job they do and see how they are supporting vulnerable families who are trying to get by on particularly Newstart, the disability support pension and the age pension. Families are struggling on casual part-time work. They are not earning enough to be able to put food on the table. Foodbank are providing that service. They are supporting people who are living in poverty.

To imply that this country does not have an issue with inequality is simply ignoring or juggling the facts to make them fit their story. This country needs to wake up to the fact that we have an increasing problem with poverty and we have an increasing problem with inequality. Those who are trying to survive on extremely low incomes and on Newstart in particular are doing it very tough. If you just look at the proper figures and at those vulnerable groups, you will see that this country has a very significant issue with inequality.