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Labor's commitment to a fairer and more inclusive Australia: speech to ACOSS National Congress 2002, Hobart.

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NOVEMBER 29, 2002

The Labor Party's purpose is clear - making sure that all Australians have access to the services they need and share in the benefits from the wealth created by our people.

We don't believe there is a place for poverty.

We believe that after years of economic growth inequality should be declining, but it's not.

We believe in a strong economy for a fair society.

Contrast that with Tony Abbott - he says it is un-Australian to talk about the distribution of wealth!

Australians like to think that fairness and inclusion - the two values given prominence in the title of this conference - characterise this country and the society we live in.

But it is a view increasingly hard to sustain as the chasm between the small elite doing very well and the large majority who are struggling to make ends meet grows.

Just on a year ago Simon Crean announced that Labor would undertake a review of all its policies, except for the further sale of Telstra and gave me the task of co-ordinating it.

This Sunday, the first of December, marks a milestone for the policy review -the cut off for formal submissions. To date we have received over 1300 written submissions.


This reflects the enormous interest the review has generated among party members and the community. In addition to making these submissions hundreds of people have attended policy forums around the country.

Shadow Ministers have been conducting policy forums within their own portfolios as well as consulting widely with community and interest groups. Be assured this work doesn't end on December 1.

I don't want this cut-off to discourage those who have a contribution to make coming forward with new ideas. December 1 is not the end of public involvement. People contributing new ideas will always be welcome.

Labor is open for policy business. Unlike the Prime Minister, who responds to serious issues with talk and nothing more than the politics of gesture.

Earlier this year he said balancing work and family was a barbecue stopper, but he continues on with the same industrial relations and family tax policies that have made it harder, not easier, for parents to balance the two. He has produced no work and family policy. And on bank profits: "I have said for the five years I've been Prime Minister and before that banks have social obligations." (30 March 2001). Yet no policy response.

It is clear the Prime Minister mimics the language of the outer but pursues the policies of the corporate box.

Labor has spent 2002 consulting and developing policies; the Prime Minister has spent 2002 reciting platitudes.

Australia can't afford a government on policy cruise control because you don't have to look far to see how tough things are getting.

Just ask any one of the 1.2 million working households identified by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as suffering financial hardship. We’re not talking here about people who can’t afford a second car or a trip overseas. We’re talking about people who are struggling to pay the electricity bill or to buy their children shoes for school.

With the drought, add more families in trouble.

Families, particularly people on low incomes, are being squeezed by the rising cost of life’s basics and a mounting list of levies, fees and charges for everything from bank transactions to going to the doctor.

While the banks record ever-fatter profits - $10.5 billion this year alone -households are paying twice as much in banking fees and charges than they were in 1996.


More and more families are being hit by charges when they go to the doctor. Bulk billing, the centrepiece of Medicare, is fast disappearing under the Howard Government, down from 80 per cent in 1996 to 71.2 per cent now.

Families are going backwards financially just to pay for life’s necessities.

Since 1996 average household debt has almost doubled - from $44,000 to $79,000 - and Australians now owe more than $21.5 billion on their credit cards.

Not surprisingly, given the financial pressures they are under, people’s ability and inclination to save has plummeted. Since 1996 household savings rates have halved to the point where people are saving just 50 cents in every $100 they earn.

The term working poor might have been around for a while, but it has never been more accurate than it is now.

According to the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling the number of children growing up in working poor families has increased by 40 per cent since 1996. Even more disturbing is the fact that the number of children living in poverty leapt by 22 per cent in the last five years of the twentieth century. After ten years of some of the strongest economic growth in the developed world we should be seeing the death of poverty, not its growth.

But it just shows in whose interests this government operates.

NATSEM economist Simon Kelly found that this year the wealthiest fifth of the population held 63 per cent of the nation’s wealth while the poorest fifth held just one per cent.

By contrast, Labor is committed to fairness and inclusion through the creation and strengthening of universal programs like Medicare and public education.

We don't believe in incentives that lure the middle class and the wealthy into private schemes, or in replacing universal programs with charities and scholarships for the deserving poor.

But that's what we see being implemented in the policies of our opponents - in health and education. They are policies of division, not inclusion.

It is apparent in the growing divides in our society - between those without work or a decent job and those chronically overworked, between the cities and the regions, between the highly educated and low-skilled.

For those like me who don’t accept these divides as inevitable, who object to a society built on winners and losers, it is why political action and public policy matter.


Closing these divides, bringing Australians together so that we all share in the nation’s wealth - that is what Labor is about and that is why we are determined to find inclusive policy solutions.

We must change the direction in which Australia is heading.

Central to finding the right policy solutions is to get out and about, to hear first-hand the problems Australians face in their daily lives. That is why the policy forums I and other Shadow Ministers have conducted around the nation have been so important to the review of Labor’s policies.

Recently I held a forum in Townsville and, towards the end, a middle-aged woman stood up and said, rather timidly, that she was worried about unemployment and the casualisation of the workforce.

As she said, there is a great big gap growing in Australian society that we should all be worried about, that an enormous underclass is developing that no-one, particularly the Howard Government, seemed to care about. After undertaking intensive job training this woman found that the only jobs she could get were so low paid and insecure that she wasn’t earning enough to live on. With an honesty that exposed her vulnerability, she said she only got by because she had a wonderful daughter who paid her phone bill.

Across Australia people like this woman are struggling to support themselves and their families by piecing together what part-time and casual work they can.

Ten years of strong economic growth have done nothing for these people except rob them of decent jobs and drive their standard of living down.

In the last three years just 700 new middle-income jobs have been created, compared with more than 460,000 low-paid positions. Since 1998 almost 90 per cent of all new jobs have paid below the average wage.

As the woman from Townsville explained, many of these jobs just don’t pay enough to support a family. They simply entrench disadvantage and breed despair and hopelessness.

That is why Labor is serious about tackling the casualisation of the workforce and giving Australians the opportunity for real jobs with decent pay and conditions.

Labor is committed to improving the living standards of low-income households and one of the things that means is improving the rights of casual workers and gearing incentives toward full-time jobs.

The expanding gulf between those on high and low incomes is being matched by a deepening divide between those with too much work and those with not enough.


Increasingly, Australians in full-time work are coming under pressure to work harder as business tries to do more with fewer staff. People are putting in massive hours of unpaid overtime, placing incredible strains on personal and family relationships. About one-third of all workers spend more than 49 hours a week at their job.

At the same time a vast number of people are trapped in part-time jobs when what they want is more work. Almost one in every three Australians with a job is working part-time, the second-highest rate in the developed world. About a quarter of these workers - 590,000 people - would work more if given the chance.

Then there are those Tim Colebatch of The Age described as the “broken breadwinners”, the 15 per cent of men in the prime of their working life who cannot find a job.

I met men like these in Newcastle earlier this year. Proud men who had worked as steelworkers for ten years or more before finding themselves suddenly thrown on the unemployment scrapheap.

They talked of the turmoil and uncertainty that they were forced to deal with every day, trying to support their families by cobbling together what casual or part-time work they could get, taking what work they could because they could never be sure when the next job would come.

The fact is that our employment market is completely out of whack.

Yes, we need economic growth, but that is not the end of the story.

We need employment policies that allow Australians to share in the economic growth. We need to build an economy that creates jobs which provide enough to support an Australian family, where there is a greater chance to share in the wealth created, rather than low-paid, low-skilled, insecure casual jobs.

That is why Labor wants to build a knowledge-based economy. It is why education is at the heart of our policy review.

Australia can’t keep living in the past. Our schools need to be better resourced. Education has always been important for increasing equality and tolerance. But more and more it will mean the difference between sinking and swimming - both for individuals and for our country.

Education is the driver for the creation of a high wage, high skill, knowledge-intensive economy. Without it our standard of living will go backwards.

It is, therefore, more critical than ever that all Australian children receive an excellent education.

I don’t want one standard for private school kids and another for the rest - Labor wants to build an education system where all kids get the best start.


This is my goal for Labor’s education policies.

As a nation we cannot afford to let the talent and potential of our young people go to waste simply because they don’t live in the right area or cannot afford to go to the right school.

Access Economics has found that for every dollar invested keeping young people in school or training the nation reaps a $3 benefit through having a better educated, more productive workforce, higher tax revenue and fewer social problems.

But this government seems intent on ensuring that only those with the money should get the best education.

It has poured massive funds into non-government schools - since 1996 private school funding has leapt by 170 per cent. Some of Australia’s wealthiest private schools have received an extra $1 million a year from the Howard Government.

Next year, for the first time in Australia’s history, the Federal Government will spend more on non-government schools than it does on higher education.

By comparison, Commonwealth funding for government schools will actually fall by almost $10 million this financial year.

All Australians deserve to get a quality education.

That is why public education is a national priority for Labor, and it is why I have committed a future Labor government to ensuring that all children complete Year 12 or its vocational equivalent.

Without a decent education people have little hope of breaking out of a cycle of low-paid, low skill jobs that lead nowhere.

This was never more apparent than in the northern Adelaide suburb of Salisbury, which I visited earlier this year.

The area has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment rates in Australia, running at almost 30 per cent.

Ten years ago the local high school was in trouble and there was talk of it being closed down. High rates of absenteeism, low retention levels and falling enrolments all contributed to the rising levels of youth unemployment in the area. Fewer than 5 per cent of its students made it to university and more than half never reached Year 12.

Thanks to the determination of the teachers and their absolute belief that the only way these young people would escape poverty was to finish school and


go on to training or university, the situation at Salisbury High has turned around.

Today up to 90 per cent of Salisbury students stay on to finish Year 12 and it has the highest university intake in the area.

The experience at Salisbury highlights just how irresponsible it is for an education minister to go around saying that many children are not biologically or socially equipped to finish school. If that attitude had prevailed at Salisbury hundreds of kids now finishing Year 12 would never have got that far.

The fact is that for kids who drop out of school early the prospects are grim.

Research by Dusseldorp Skills Forum has shown that young people who drop out of school early are three times more likely to be unemployed than those who finish Year 12.

Despite these facts we have an education minister who doesn’t believe in encouraging students to complete year twelve. He thinks we are setting young people up to fail. I don’t. I believe it is setting them up to succeed.

Brendan Nelson talks down expectations, and is content with a low-wage, low-skill economy and 23 per cent youth unemployment.

I believe we have to talk young people up. I believe education is the key to high wage, high skill jobs and a prosperous, fair society and I don’t want 23 per cent of young people to miss out.

Of course, its hard to hold down a job if you’re health is poor. My grandfather’s TB put an incredible strain on his family.

In our family health was always seen as basic to getting on in life. Without it you were in trouble.

That is why it is so disturbing to see what this Federal Government is doing to Medicare.

When Labor introduced a universal health scheme it was about ensuring that all Australians, no matter where they lived or how much they had, were guaranteed that when they got sick they would be able to see a doctor.

But the rapid decline in bulk-billing under the Howard Government has undermined all that.

Time and again the disappearance of doctors prepared to bulk-bill was raised at the policy forums I attended.

People talked of the financial and physical hardship inflicted by not having access to affordable healthcare.


Not only is bulk-billing disappearing, but the cost of seeing a GP who charges has gone up more than 50 per cent since 1996.

Under the Howard Government our universal health system, of which Australia is justly proud, is being undermined and Americanised.

Increasingly the best healthcare is being reserved for those who can afford it, not those who need it most.

That is why restoring bulk-billing is Labor’s single biggest priority in health. We will target increases in the Medicare rebate to those areas where bulk-billing is in greatest decline, take measures to ensure general practice is once again sustainable and develop a national approach to workforce planning and doctor shortages.

Another issue that I know is close to the hearts of many of you here today is the Australians Working Together Bill currently before Parliament.

As it stands the Bill includes Labor’s policy of working credits. We want working credits to put extra money in the pockets of people starting out in a low paid job.

But the Bill also contains measures to extend mutual obligation requirements to single parents and the older unemployed.

Labor does not oppose this extension, as long as it is accompanied by appropriate support for those disadvantaged in the labour market, such as the older unemployed.

We must not create a conflict for parents between their family duties and their participation in the community.

That is why Labor has proposed amendments to help parents strike a balance between work and family and to ensure older unemployed people retain their dignity.

Labor is also pushing for a fairer mutual obligation regime.

With the support of the Democrats we have split the Bill, so working credits could be passed into law immediately if the government agrees to pass that Bill when Parliament returns next week.

I want to leave you with some signposts to Labor’s policy agenda for the coming year.

Much policy work has already been done. So far 78 policy papers, discussion papers and policy statements have been released and many more will be produced in the coming months.


One of the key areas Labor is addressing is the pressure on families. We are developing family-friendly policies that will help parents better balance work and family commitments.

We have already committed to the introduction of a national paid maternity leave scheme and a five-year solution for parents that involves more affordable and accessible childcare and more flexible leave arrangements.

Home ownership is rapidly being priced out of the reach of many Australians. The possibility of owning your own home has become increasingly remote for people and families on low incomes. Waiting lists for public housing continue to grow.

We have already suggested policy ideas to make housing more affordable, including encouraging investment by superannuation funds in affordable housing, establishing matched savings accounts and developing nest-egg accounts that provide children from low-income families with capital they can use toward their education, buying a home or starting a business.

In education Labor will ensure every child has the opportunity to complete, to a national standard, Year 12 or its training equivalent.

We will restore public investment in our schools, vocational training and higher education and put an end to up-front fees that allow people to buy their way into university.

These are just some of the issues on Labor’s policy agenda. Next year the policy work will continue , in early childhood development, education, health, housing, the casualisation of work and many other areas.

Good public policy is never developed in a vacuum and Labor will continue to engage with the community - as it has done throughout this year - in developing the policies needed to build an Australia that is fair and inclusive.

An Australia where no-one is left behind.

A just society.

I look forward to the continued involvement of ACOSS in helping reach this goal.

Thank you.