House debates

Wednesday, 29 March 2017


Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017; Second Reading

4:47 pm

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017. I want to put on the record concerns from people in my electorate who this bill will have an impact on. People in regional communities will be hit very hard by measures in this bill. Zombie cuts are back. They are again a tax on those in our community who are the most vulnerable. In my electorate, over the last five years, we have talked a lot about hidden poverty, about the people who are slowly going under because their household income is stuck or falling yet the cost of living is increasing. On a daily basis, we hear from welfare organisations about a 40 per cent increase in people seeking help—organisations like the Salvation Army, Uniting Care in Kangaroo Flat and Forest Street Bendigo and St Vincent de Paul in Bendigo, whether supporting people with food relief, rent assistance or getting the car fixed—who are struggling to survive. This bill and the cuts before us will only make it worse.

I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the member for Indi's comments. I hope members of the government and other regional MPs were listening to some of the recommendations that she put forward and also listening to some of the stories she put forward about the experiences of people in her electorate. These are real people who are really struggling in our regional towns. These are towns where it is not just one person; in some cases, it is entire neighbourhoods that need support right now. The member for Indi talked about the social welfare net and the importance of having a strong social welfare net so that people do not collapse into dire poverty that then affects their lives going forward. These are the experiences of people in my own electorate.

I held a listening post not that long ago at the front of Coles in Bendigo. A single mum approached me. She said, 'Lisa, I need help. I am struggling with Centrelink. I am caught up in the review system. I do not know how I am going to pay my rent this week. Who should I speak to? I have almost spent my entire family tax benefit payment that I received after the last tax year. How do I pay for food next week? How do I get my son to and from school and to his appointments next week?' She had moved to Bendigo under tragic circumstances, which a lot of people find themselves in. It is a family break-up and she is without any support or any money. She is in that situation where she is most in need. She has skills herself. She has multiple degrees. She is out there trying to look for work but right now needs our support. This government is not there for her. It is very lucky for this particular individual that Max at Uniting Care Bendigo was able to help. The Bendigo community reached out and supported this family in my electorate to make sure that they did not go under, they were not evicted from their home and the children could go to school with lunches.

We have a situation in Bendigo where children are not sent to school because mum or dad cannot afford to buy lunches, because all of their money is going towards rent. We talk about rent stress in this country and it is a real issue, yet the measures in this bill are going to make it even harder for people to survive going forward. We have inequality in this country at a 75-year high. What does that mean?

Households in this country are struggling to survive. More and more people are being evicted, more and more people are being forced to live in their cars and more and more people are just dropping out of our system. They are not productive in our economy, they cannot get the hours that they need at work and, therefore, they are literally going under. This is a hidden poverty problem that has now become a stark reality for so many people.

In my own electorate of Bendigo, about 30 per cent of households are trying to survive on less than $600 a week and many families will be caught up in this government's cruel measures that we are now debating in this House. The two measures that I particularly wish to highlight are indexation and the family tax benefit—first of all, the freezing of the income indexation threshold for people of all working ages and for students. This includes Newstart, youth allowance, parenting payment and carers payment. This will affect about 204,000 Australians on the lowest incomes, including a lot of people who live in regional electorates. These are people living on very low incomes. The threshold has been frozen when it is already incredibly low. As an example, parenting payment will reduce after a person earns $188 a fortnight. For Newstart, it is $102 a fortnight. There is no rationale for freezing these thresholds for three years. It is the income test. I do not understand why a government, when somebody is earning money and wants to work more hours, would not let the income threshold increase. These are people who are trying to survive on low wages and earn a bit extra. If their wages increase, what they can earn before they lose their payment should also go up. All the government is doing is taking away the incentive for people to work and locking them into poverty. I believe we have to go the other way. I believe that we need to start looking at increasing the income threshold to encourage people to work more. It should be celebrated. When somebody is working and we encourage them to work more, yes, they get a bit more of a social welfare net and payment from us, and we should not lock them into poverty by cutting that payment. We should encourage them to earn more. We need to look at increasing the income bank, as we called it in my day, for students so they can build their earning capacity and we can see some of these people lifted up out of poverty.

We have a university in my electorate and this is an issue that comes up a lot when I talk to students at the Bendigo La Trobe campus. Young people leave home to move to university, and we joke about it being a rite of passage—when you are a student you survive on two-minute noodles, not that that is a healthy option, a smart option or a government policy we should ever be endorsing. We now have university students seeking food relief help because all of their Newstart and all of their wages are going on the cost of study, which is increasing, and the cost of rent, which is also increasing. Average rents in Bendigo are now $250 per week. When you are on Newstart or youth allowance, it is very hard to make that payment. This is rent in a regional town, let alone the rents in Melbourne. When you have students who are reaching out for food relief, there is a structural problem in our system, and the indexation measures before us around freezing people's capacity to earn are only going to make that harder.

The changes to family tax benefit are effectively a cut. A family on $60,000 with two primary school aged children will be about $440 worse off in 2018-19. These are the same parents who have lost their schoolkids bonus. These are the same parents who, if they work in hospitality or retail, have just been hit with a penalty rates cut. Sixty thousand dollars is not a lot of money and it is actually higher than the average income of people in my electorate. A single parent on $50,000 with two children in high school will be about $540 a year worse off in 2018-19. High school is the time in young people's lives when costs start to increase for parents. They do not decrease; they actually increase, particularly in regional areas, where we have a youth unemployment problem. We do not have enough jobs for young people to get involved in and there is a spike in people aged 15 to 19 being unable to get work. We just do not have enough jobs in our region because this government has dropped the ball on job creation. Another example is single income couples on $60,000 with three children under the age of 12. They will be $600 a year worse off. Six hundred dollars makes a big difference to families who are trying to survive on $60,000. It does not go far enough. This is from the same government that, in the budget, is going to let the people at the top end of the scale, the millionaires, basically receive a pay rise. The levy that was in place will cease, so millionaires will basically receive a tax cut of $16,000 or $17,000, while people at the lowest end and the people affected by these changes will be grossly worse off. To a single income couple with three children, $600 is a lot.

In the time that I have left, I wish to talk about penalty rates and the impact of the Fair Work Commission decision. We have seen this week from the Australia Institute that there will be a $650 million blow to the budget because of the cut to Sunday and public holiday penalty rates for retail and hospitality workers. That is just the beginning. Right now, employers in the beauty and hairdressing industry want the same cut to the wages of their employees. Also, clubs, pubs and hotels are doing exactly the same. So this problem for the government is going to blow out unless they join Labor and back our legislation to protect penalty rates. It is not only going to hurt those workers and lock them into poverty and needing more from our social welfare system; the starting figure for that budget cost, if we do not take action, will be $650 million. Read what the Australia Institute has put out; read it and understand it between now and when we come back for the budget when this parliament resumes.

This bill is another cruel attack by this government on the most vulnerable in our community. The government are also attacking hardworking families, people on the lowest of incomes. The government do not seem to understand the impact of these decisions, or they do understand and they just do not care. You can tell that because of the volumes of speakers they have to defend these cuts—not one of their members is willing to get up here and defend these cuts. There are no marginal seat holders standing up and telling the truth. They are happy to heckle but will not engage in the debate. They will not listen to the real stories of how these cuts will affect people. We have so many families close to going under in our own electorates—people who are really struggling, people who might be working full-time, who are going to be hit with a cut to the family tax benefit. These are people working in industries like retail, like horticulture, like food processing. If you work in chicken, if you are lucky enough to be directly employed, you might be able to take home $50,000 a year. You are one of the families that are going to be cut. You work hard in food processing, but it is a minimum wage and you are likely to be affected by these changes.

The government needs to start listening to the stories of people in their electorates, particularly those in regional communities. These cuts will hurt families, these cuts will hurt young people and these cuts will hurt our pensioners. This is at a time when the government is also not doing anything to support wages growth and is not doing anything to support increasing employment opportunities. Unemployment in our country is spiking and underemployment in our country is spiking, yet the government are not addressing this. Worse still, through the measures that are before us they are locking people into low household income and locking them into poverty. It is the wrong approach, particularly at this time with the state of the economy and the state of the community and people's living standards. I ask people to vote against this bill. (Time expired)


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