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Address to the Endeavour Hills and the Fountain Gate ALP Branches, Fountain Gate Hotel, Narre Warren: 31 October 2003\n



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ADDRESS TO THE ENDEAVOUR HILLS AND FOUNTAIN GATE ALP BRANCHES, FOUNTAIN GATE HOTEL, NARRE WARREN, 31 OCTOBER 2003

WAYNE SWAN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FAMILY AND COMMUNITY SERVICES

EMBARGOED UNTIL 8PM, 31 OCTOBER 2003

I want to talk to you about restoring the Australian ethos of a fair go, or to put it another way, how we might meet the threat to the great tradition of egalitarianism on which this nation was built.

Six months after the conclusion of the second Gulf War, the Australian public is once again focussing on the big domestic issues that confront us.

It doesn’t matter where you go in Australia, the heat generated by the torching of Medicare and the tearing apart of our social safety net just keeps bubbling to the surface.

And you can see it in the polls, a collapse of the Conservatives primary vote, Labor in reach of government on a two party preferred basis and decisive leads for Labor in health, education, families and welfare.

And you see it in the faces on the street, in the supermarket and at the school graduation ceremonies, at the school breakfast programs where kids are hungry, in the lines at soup kitchens, and in the anguished stories of parents struggling to get their kids to the doctor and to school.

2.4 million Australians living below a modest poverty line of $416 per week for a family of four over one million Australians in work but poor and a great sinking middle worried about opportunities for their kids.

Why, with the doubling of our national wealth in the last decade, are so many people missing out?

Why in Australia have we seen an overclass and underclass emerge and why are so many in the middle being squeezed?

Why has so little of this wealth creation trickled down to average Australians?

Average Australians are uncomfortable because they believe we can’t have fair prosperity in isolation from a fair society. And there are plenty out there who are doing well, but can’t stomach what’s happening to Australia.

They don’t want to run the risk of waking up one day to discover we don’t know the country we live in anymore.

It’s not just the strangling of Medicare, the abuse of the vulnerable or the idea that only the rich deserve a good education, it’s the notion that we no longer care about what happens to anyone else.

It’s the replacement of the egalitarian notion that we’re all in this together with the belief of every person for themselves.

The latest Newspoll, which canvasses Australian’s views on which party is best able to handle individual issues, indicates the level of disquiet about the loss of the fair go.

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Labor is now nineteen points clear of the Government on welfare and social issues - the difference was six points six months after John Howard was elected.

As the Government has wrought the changes, the gap on welfare and social issues has opened up.

Australians have made their judgement on the Howard Government’s social program - and they don’t like what they see.

The Labor Party now has an opportunity to provide the leadership to spark a national debate about the growing inequality in our country.

In my view our sense of fairness, our pride in our classlessness is the dominant characteristic of our patriotism.

It’s our light on the hill and it’s the key to lifting Labor’s primary vote - a must if we are to win Casey seats like Flinders, Latrobe, Aston as well as retaining Holt and Isaacs.

We must also ensure our appeal to the fair go permeates the outer suburbs of Sydney and Brisbane and the many expanding regional centres where people are trying to establish the foundations for a better for themselves and their kids.

Here in Fountain Gate, we are in the middle of the City of Casey - 205,000 people, many who have voted Labor before, but not in the last decade.

Over the last 15 years distrust of political and economic institutions has skyrocketed. This has produced a disintegration of our two party system.

In 1987, Howard’s first unsuccessful election as Opposition Leader, the combined ALP/Coalition share of the primary vote was 92%. The minors received just 8%.

In the 2001 Federal election, the majors got 80% while the minors got 20%.

More and more Australians aren’t attached to major parties, and the two majors are today lucky to have a solid core of 70%.

The Battlers and the Westfield Mallers - The Sinking Middle

This region is populated by two groups of voters we must win over at the coming Federal Election.

These two politically homeless groups are not rusted on to either party but the Government is squeezing them.

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The frontline of growing inequality in Australia is the new poor - they are classic battlers, mostly blue collar, working hard but not making enough to pay the bills.

While many battler's see themselves as middle class, their security is no longer a given.

Alongside the battlers are another group in the middle who are also increasingly vulnerable as the Government withdraws services.

In an address to the Victorian Fabians last year I talked about the political importance of uniting the battlers with this middle group who I referred to as the Westfield Mallers.

They are teachers and nurses, sub-contractors and small business owners who have done well in life and want their children to do even better.

The value of their home is important and they often have a second investment property.

In the new and emerging suburbs in which the Mallers live, the local shopping centre - in this case Fountain Gate - is the cog around which their social interaction whirls.

For this group issues, not ideology are the language of politics.

They are not attracted by the cobbling together of disparate issues. They respond to values they hold dear - pride in country, the importance of family, opportunity, a fair go and a hand up for the needy.

Together the Battlers and the Westfield Mallers form the sinking middle - families who live on modest wages or wages made modest by the cost of their responsibilities to their children.

Our Prime Minister takes them for granted. He thinks they live in Howardsville. Well I’ve got news for him. They don’t like being taken for granted.

They resent his attacks on Medicare, his withdrawal of quality universal services and his shifting of the tax burden onto their shoulders.

They are paying the highest taxes in history. In Howardsville, they pay their taxes and pay again for services. It’s user pays and pays and pays.

Many who would regard themselves as in the comfortable middle are starting to understand they are just one health crisis, interest rate rise or redundancy away from financial catastrophe.

In those circumstances there is a fine line between the middle and relegation to battler status.

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Both groups are being squeezed by doctors’ fees, school costs and they have no time to spend with their kids.

Chances are many of them are members of the increasing pool of workers who are forfeiting sixty cents of every dollar of overtime to the Government in additional tax and lost family payments.

Our Political Approach

There is a legitimate debate in our ranks about how we win these people over at the next election.

Some say that to win elections your have to be either principled or pragmatic.

Much of this is claptrap parading as political analysis.

We don’t have to compromise our ideals to win; we have to be true to them.

In the face of rising cynicism and disengagement, the Howard tactic is to harvest disillusionment and anxiety.

Our tactic must be to build a consensus around positive alternatives.

We must build a vision based on the common interest and contrast it to Howard who always panders to fear, prejudice and self-interest.

Our program for the next election must be about delivering equality of opportunity - a fair go for all Australians.

We have already underwritten this commitment to a fair go with more than $4.2 billion of funded health and education opportunities.

And there is more on the way.

Policies like these deal with families immediate ‘bread and butter’ concerns.

They are attractive to battlers and the Mallers who don’t have time for theoretical debates - they have enough trouble scraping the dollars together to take their kids to the doctor or paying the sport fees.

Each fortnight their pay packet is spent before it arrives.

More than ever the battlers and the Mallers have a view on every issue. Gone are the days where they might have had a set of representative beliefs or a guiding ideology, which predetermined their stance.

Today they want practical solutions, which I think are embodied in our health and education initiatives.

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From Labor’s perspective, it’s commonsense to respond to the values they hold dear - values like love of country, hard work, family and personal responsibility, a helping hand for the needy and a fair go for all.

The Labor Party needs to imagine what can be achieved with a campaign that emphasises common Australian values backed with a new set of longer term policies to enhance inter-generational equity and opportunity.

Two areas stand out here.

Early Assistance

Increasingly, opportunity will be determined by the quality of a child’s experiences during their first five years - family life, childcare and health - and the quality of their education.

In each of these areas Australia is badly placed.

It’s time we stopped putting bandaids over our ballooning welfare programs and instead develop comprehensive early intervention programs for our children.

The foundation of fairness is in doing better in the care of our children.

But out of a Commonwealth welfare budget of $60 billion and state children protection spending of $796 million there is very little directed to preventing abuse, breakdown and neglect of our children.

Instead the money is spent knocking down doors to remove children from families that have long since become unsafe.

This is despite the evidence, which clearly shows that for every dollar spent early you save seven down the track in lower child protection, crime, social security and other costs.

Instead of ignoring bad parents we need to provide them with the opportunity to learn how to be better. There is no shame, no stigma attached to parenting education provided to new parents and it’s a necessity because bad parenting hurts too many young lives.

It is important that the Commonwealth take the lead on issues like this.

We need a comprehensive platform of services for families and children - it is the modern equivalent of the Snowy Mountains scheme

Financial security for families

Aside from good health there are not many things that eclipse financial security in importance for families.

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Financial security is not only important in providing a home for children to grow up in, it is also important because it opens up opportunities for their future.

The problem for many Australian families today is they are under unprecedented financial pressure.

Most Australian families can’t save for their or their children’s future because they are flat out making ends meet from week to week.

Housing costs and mortgage repayments are eating up more and more of the family budget.

Health and education costs are spiraling out of control.

If families are lucky they might have a credit card to help them over the humps - but that ends when they reach their credit limit - presenting a whole new problem to deal with.

With parents juggling these sorts of financial pressures it increases the importance of family payments.

In the past family payments have been there to help parents with the costs of raising their kids. It was the one form of income that families could depend on.

Not anymore.

Thanks to the Howard Government we now have a family payment system that is incapable of meeting the financial needs families have from week to week.

The system simply cannot properly adjust for the ebb and flow of family earnings through the year, and now hundreds of thousands of families are being hit with bills for overpayments.

The Howard Government’s family payment debt trap is tearing the heart out of family budgets - placing parents under even greater financial pressure.

The debts hit one in three families.

Each family is levied with an average debt of almost $900.

Many have it stripped without warning from their anticipated tax return - money most have already spent.

Those who don’t have a tax cheque for the Government to pilfer face ongoing deductions from their already reduced fortnightly benefits.

Near a thousand dollars, either in one hit or each fortnight from ongoing benefits is an awfully big dint to the family budget.

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To put it into perspective it is worth 15 pairs of shoes for growing feet - every year!

Or 180 school lunches.

Or 90 half-hour swimming lessons.

The Howard Government’s solution to this mess is to ask families to forgo all or part of their fortnightly benefits and get a ‘catch up’ payment at the end of the year.

This is plainly ridiculous to anyone who has children.

Kids can’t go to school shoeless waiting until mum and dad to get their ‘catch up’ payment of FTB.

But the impact the debts are having on family budgets is only part of the story.

Under this system families are actually receiving less assistance.

The truth is the Howard Government is using this system to claw back payments from families.

Information released this week in the Family and Community Services Annual report reveals a billion dollar black hole in family assistance.

Last year, in 2002-2003, the Howard Government spent $1.02 billion less in family tax benefit and child care benefit than it said it would in that year’s budget.

With such a large amount ripped from the household budgets of Australian families you can start to understand why last year’s $7 billion surplus looked so rosy.

In isolation the $1.02 billion black hole in the family assistance budget looks pretty bad, but when you actually compare expenditure to previous years alarm bells start ringing.

In 2002-2003 the Howard Government spent in real terms $212 million less in family tax benefit than the first year of the GST.

That’s right - collectively Australian families are actually receiving less in family tax benefit today than they were three years ago.

This system is not more generous - it is less generous.

Along with the spiraling tax burden and increased costs for health, education and housing it is plain to see why families simply can’t get ahead.

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Labor recognises it cannot continue.

That is why Labor has developed detailed policies to restore financial security to families.

Some of these have been released, like our plans to make health and education more affordable.

But there is more.

Labor will restore the family payment system from one that gives families debts to a one that provides them with real assistance week to week.

To do this payments will need to be more responsive to changes in family earnings and circumstances.

Labor will also confront the incentive sapping marginal tax rates that see many families lose more than 60 cents of each additional dollar they earn.

Labor’ s aim will be to dramatically improve the incentives for families to earn extra, regardless of the family type, whether it is part-time or full-time work.

Families deserve a break - Labor intends to give it to them.

The way ahead

Having put in place smart policies, we need intelligent strategies, humility and patience to communicate them directly to voters.

We can’t just bootstrap our way to power by yelling slogans because there are formidable obstacles to getting our message through.

Labor faces a political climate that is increasingly hostile to egalitarian values.

On the day of the George Bush visit, Howard hosted a BBQ at The Lodge - it received enormous coverage as befits the cult of celebrity.

Everything down to the gourmet Pavlova was funded at taxpayer’s expense.

The fact that the Leader of the Opposition and a majority of the Australian people who voted for him were excluded, was itself a metaphor of the growing social and economic gap in our land - the haves and have nots, the well connected and the unconnected and the disconnected.

And nothing better demonstrates why the game’s up for John Howard or how arrogant his Government has become than the failure to invite the widow of Sergeant Russell to the wreath laying ceremony at the War Memorial on the same day.

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The blindness of the affluent

The week before all this was Anti-Poverty week. Hundreds of events were held around the country. Labor announced an anti-Poverty strategy - barely a line in our major newspapers appeared.

The Prime Minister boasted in the Parliament that Australia had achieved a Golden Economic Double and when he was questioned about growing inequality, he waffled and implied that inequality didn’t matter, indeed it was a good thing.

Any problems are the responsibility of the states, the poor and the dispossessed.

The truth is that many who are reaping the benefits of a strong economy are blind to growing social divides.

Howard and his Ministers are the blindest of them all.

Among those are many who debate, analyse and write about the nation.

And those who are living with the consequence of our failure to share the dividends of growth have little voice and too few advocates.

Too many Australians in the first camp who support our open market-based economy have forgotten why economic growth is so important.

They are deeply ambivalent to the concerns of the poor and the battlers.

Money it seems is a powerful tranquilliser.

And those at the top are awash in it.

The total incomes of the top 5% of income earners is now equivalent to the combined earnings of 3.8 million Australians - 45% of income earners.

Their income - $61.8 billion is greater than our nation spends on welfare and community services.

The incomes of the top 20% have grown seven times faster than the bottom 20% and fifty percent faster than middle-income earners over the last four years.

While the bottom 20% saw their weekly incomes increase by just $3 between 1996 and 2001, the top 20% saw their weekly income surge by $109 over the same period.

But few people are listening.

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The problem is that as the social and economic shake out of our cities and regions continues apace without any action from Government, the privileged no longer share space with the poor.

Their kids attend elite schools, they don’t use public hospitals. And as they retreat from spaces once shared, they find it harder to identify with the concerns of a community going down hill.

Newspaper editors are no exception.

No major media group has given ongoing coverage to the Senate Inquiry into Poverty and Financial Disadvantage.

It doesn’t rate.

Truth whispers and money shouts

The other obstacle is best summed up in the old saying, truth whispers and money shouts.

The combined resources of right wing think tanks like the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute for Public Affairs dwarf those of our sole national welfare peak - the Australian Council of Social Service.

The welfare sector is impotent in the face of the well-funded conservative campaign and constant bullying by a Government from whom they get the lion’s share of their funding.

Too many people on the Left who profess a concern about poverty are sitting on the sidelines twiddling their thumbs or engaged in arcane arguments about definitions instead of venturing into the public domain to raise the alarm.

Last year a senior columnist scolded Labor for its continued campaign about the problems with the Government’s family payments system, which gives a third of families annual debts of close to a thousand dollars. He described it as just an administrative matter.

This is the blindness of the affluent at work.

The redistribution in favour of the well off is reshaping our political environment.

Our political system is moving towards the right - driven by the increasingly powerful minority of the very wealthy and the politically powerful and that makes life difficult for parties of the left.

The conspiracy of silence that I speak of reflects the growing power of those with accumulated wealth to smother moves to redistribute resources more fairly.

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US economist Paul Krugman recently asked the question if the richer are getting richer doesn’t that leave less for everyone else? We need to ask ourselves the same thing.

As the gap between the rich and the rest grows and power becomes the domain of the rich alone, economic policy increasingly caters to the interests of the elite while public services for the population at large - above all public education and Medicare - are starved of resources.

As Krugman observed recently of the tactics of the right in the USA, ‘these days selfishness comes tightly wrapped in a flag’.

Over the last two and half years, the Howard Government has proceeded on the basis it can camouflage its mean social policy behind a wall of national security concerns.

Doyen of deception

Howard has used security issues or as Geoffrey Barker recently described it - played Patriot Games - to sell himself as a strong leader.

He has done this because he can’t sell the community his domestic plans - the sale of Telstra, the gutting of Medicare, education for the wealthy only - the list is endless.

He uses security issues to distract attention from the real agenda of fleecing the battlers and forcing the sinking middle to pay twice for their health and education.

Howard is an expert at putting the con back into conservatism.

He is the doyen of deception. Tampa, the war on terror, welfare and black baiting are all distractions from his cold-hearted agenda.

When challenged on basic like selling pensioners’ homes, the misuse of intelligence information and the debt riddled family payment system, he just puts his hand on his heart and says I’m honest John.

Well the games up. We all know what he means. What he is really saying is; I’m not lying I’m just being liberal with the truth.

He hopes people will listen to what he’s saying not what he does and they will concentrate on national security rather than the bread and butter issues of domestic security.

Conclusion

As we develop further our policies, and promote them in the electorate, we would do well to remember - to paraphrase Gordon Brown - that we are best when we are Labor.

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That requires us to hold firm to the principles that have guided us - and all who depend on us - which we draw on our fine heritage and tradition of a fair go for all, and special concern for those less fortunate than we are.

These principles have served us well. While policies must change as our nation grows, and community demands and expectations evolve with that growth, our fundamental principles must not.

The need for us to hold to our fundamental principles is made even greater by the fact that we are opposed to the most right wing and reactionary government our nation has had to endure.

We must fight the government on our grounds, our terms, not theirs.

We do that well when we are Labor and proud of it.