Wednesday, 14 September 2016
Budget Savings (Omnibus) Bill 2016; Second Reading
I am very pleased to be able to speak on the Budget Savings (Omnibus) Bill. I think it is true to say that our cautious and careful approach in looking at this bill has been justified. We have looked at all of the measures through the lens of our Labor values. I will not talk on all of the issues that are in the bill; I will just concentrate on those that have been most significant to me, particularly in making sure that we protect the most vulnerable Australians.
We do have some very serious reservations with some of the measures that were proposed in the original bill. Most significantly, Labor does not support the abolition of the clean energy supplement that goes to pensioners, people with disability, carers, job seekers and many others. Labor also does not support cuts to people in psychiatric confinement. Others will talk about the scale of cuts to ARENA. After negotiations with the government—I want to particularly thank Chris Bowen and Jim Chalmers—we have reached an agreement to have these measures amended or in some cases removed from the bill that is currently before the parliament.
My primary objective has been to protect the most vulnerable Australians, and I am very pleased to say that we have done so. We on the Labor side do believe in budget repair that is fair. We believe that the budget bottom line can be fixed without making cuts to the most vulnerable Australians. The task of fiscal repair must not fall on those who have the least to give. We support sensible reforms when they do align with Labor values, and cutting the energy supplement to pensioners, carers, people with disability and the unemployed does not align with Labor values. We certainly do not accept that these people—pensioners, people with disability and the unemployed—should be forced to accept cuts in the budget while the government gives $50 billion away in tax cuts to big business.
Given the time, I will not go through the detailed history of the clean energy supplement. I will just emphasise the impact of this cut if it is ever to go through this parliament. It certainly will not go through with our support. The analysis shows that a single mother on Newstart would be $4.40 a week or $220 a year worse off. A pensioner couple would be around $8 a week or $550 a year worse off. It cannot be argued that it is fair to take $220 a year from someone who is unemployed, and it cannot be argued that it is fair to take $550 a year from an old age pensioner couple. The government has suggested that they may bring back the cuts to the energy supplement in a new bill. If they do, Labor will oppose it. We will protect these vulnerable people.
I want to really emphasise that there is no more vulnerable group in Australia than those living on Newstart. We already indicated before the election that we believe the Newstart allowance is already too low. It is equivalent to just 28 per cent of the average wage, and as a consequence of the low rate of Newstart many recipients of unemployment benefits are living in poverty. That is nearly 800,000 Australians. So it is a large number of people living on a very low incomes and, of course, that very much goes to our decision to oppose any further cuts as proposed by the abolition of the clean energy supplement. We even have the Business Council of Australia saying that the rate of Newstart allowance for jobseekers no longer meets a reasonable community standard of adequacy, and of course there are many others in the community who take the same view.
Newstart is clearly not the safety net that it is supposed to be; it is neither keeping people out of poverty nor providing them with the financial resources they need to look for and find work, so cutting the energy supplement from Newstart would have made an already bad situation even worse. It is bad public policy, it threatens to entrench disadvantage and inequality in this country and it is something that the Australian Labor Party cannot support.
We cannot accept that it is fair to cut a payment that is widely recognised as already being below the poverty line. Labor took a policy to the last election to review the adequacy of the Newstart allowance. We think that is the place the government should start, not to cut this already very low payment.
The original omnibus bill also included a measure that Labor has opposed in the past and will continue to oppose. The government wants to take income support payments away from people in psychiatric confinement who are charged with a serious offence and who are undergoing a course of rehabilitation. This would apply to people who have been found to be suffering with very serious mental health issues like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, intellectual disabilities, acquired brain injuries and so on. We do not believe the government's proposal is good policy and we are concerned that this cut would jeopardise the mental health support that people currently receive from state governments. We have opposed this in the past. I am pleased that it is going to be removed from this legislation, but the government should actually take this proposal out of the parliament altogether.
Just to summarise, I do want to emphasise again that the difficult decisions that we have had to make to get to where we are today have really been led by Bill Shorten. He really has shown that Labor is taking an approach to fairness that is serious—that he is going to make sure that the most disadvantaged people in our country are protected. I want to thank him for his leadership. It is not easy to find the savings that we have. We understand that many families are doing it tough, but I do appreciate the way in which he, Chris Bowen and Jim Chalmers—