Wednesday, 29 March 2017
Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017; Second Reading
It is my pleasure today to speak about the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill, because this bill has significance to me and to my electorate, being an electorate that is predominantly in the outer suburbs. Today in question time the Prime Minister was asked to defend low-income earners. He was asked if he believed that big business deserved a $50 billion tax cut while the lowest income earners will continue to suffer. He was asked if he thought it was fair and responsible to increase the minimum wage. On both counts, he could not assure the Australian people that his government actually cared for them or was willing to fight for them. The Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill testifies to this—it testifies to this government's blatant disregard for Australian families and to their relentless attacks on Australian families.
I want to start with family payments. The measure under schedule 4 of the bill will freeze indexation of family tax benefits parts A and B for two years, leaving 1.5 million families worse off. The bill will cut $1.4 billion from Australian families. It will freeze family tax benefit rates for two years, meaning that the payments families receive will not keep up with the cost of living and 1.5 million families will be left worse off. Almost 600,000 of these families are on a minimum rate FTB A, which means their household income is less than $52,000 a year. That is not a lot, certainly not in this day and age. The cuts will leave a family on $60,000 with two primary school aged children around $440 worse off in 2018. A single parent on $50,000 with two high school children will be around $540 worse off in 2018-19.
I was in one of those families once, and I know what it means to be $540 a year worse off. It does not sound like a lot to me now, at all, but back then, having two boys and trying to raise them on my own and send them to school, I know that that little bit of help that I got with the family tax benefit meant that my children had the books, the uniforms, the shoes and the bags to start the school year every year on time and with the things that they needed to get through that year. And I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I had a roof over my head, I had a means of transport, but, most importantly, I had hope. I had hope of finding a job. Because I was studying and working towards getting a job, I had hope that one day I would be able to provide for my children and that one day I would be able to more easily afford the books, the uniforms, the bags, the pencils and pens and everything that they needed to go to school. I had hope that one day I would be able to pay the mortgage and that one day I would be able to pay for the groceries in full. Sadly in this day and age, with unemployment at a record high in my electorate, many people in my electorate and many people in the outer suburbs do not have that hope.
I would like to move on to schedule 3 of the bill, which introduces a one-week waiting period before people can access parenting payment or youth allowance. This one is particularly significant to me. It makes it harder for people who are already in a difficult financial situation to access the financial hardship exemption by requiring that they are also experiencing a personal financial crisis. At the age of 25, I found myself in a very violent marriage. I had a three year old and a one year old. It was the hardest decision that I had to make to leave my violent husband, but it was a decision that needed to be made for the good of myself and my children. I will never forget the day that I walked into that Centrelink office, that building of grey concrete with its harsh lighting and the carpet that had been stepped on by millions of desperate souls before me. I will never forget being told that I would have to wait for my first parenting payment. I had absolutely nothing. I had not a cent to my name, and I did not know how I was going to feed my children for that next week until the parenting payment came through. I will never forget walking out of the building that day, turning the corner, leaning against the harsh concrete wall and breaking down in tears. I will never forget the face of a man approaching me and himself walking into the Centrelink office and wondering whether he saw on my face the shame, humiliation and desperation of what I had just been through. I will never forget those days.
The government does not seem to understand that people in these situations, many of them mothers fleeing family violence, are not there to scam the government. We are not criminals. We are there because we have no other choice. Many of the people who seek these kinds of payments are not there out of choice. The very principle of a social security system is that it is there for people who need it. The very principle of it is that the measure of our compassion as a society, the measure of our progress as a society, is how well we look after the most vulnerable in our society. It is that we never leave anyone behind. It is that we ensure that nobody is left in a situation where they are so desperate that they go to desperate means. This is what social security is about.
I would like to move on to schedule 1 of the bill, which freezes the income-free areas for all working-age and student payments, meaning that for the three years the income tests applying to payments for parents, job-seekers and students will not keep pace with the cost of living. Again I reiterate the importance of ensuring that payments keep up with the cost of living. While the cost of living increases and wages stay stagnant, there is no chance for economic growth. That is not how you grow an economy. It is not how you grow an economy to give big business $50 billion in tax cuts while you cut the pay of the most vulnerable in our society. It is not how you grow an economy by giving business $50 billion worth of tax cuts while impeding the capacity and ability of people to spend by cutting their wages and freezing their earnings so they do not match the increases in the cost of living. This part of the bill will affect 204,000 Australians on the lowest incomes.
I will talk again about my situation and my experiences. As a single parent raising my two sons, I was also looking for work at the same time. I was struggling to raise my kids on just $400 a fortnight. I would like everyone to think a bit about that. I would like you to think about how hard it is to try to raise a family on less than a third of what a backbencher gets in travel allowance for four days of sittings. That is pretty much what it amounts to. $400 a fortnight amounts to less than a third of what I get as a backbencher in travel allowance for four days of sitting. I have not forgotten what that is like. I have not forgotten what it is like to stand at the shopping centre counter and return half your shopping because you simply cannot afford it that week. I have not forgotten what it is like to delve through my purse and pick up coins just to be able to afford essentials like milk and bread. I will use every last breath that I have each time I walk through these doors to remind this government that there are people out there in my electorate, and in their electorates, for whom this is not something that they can push into the past—it is part of their everyday reality today.
Labor has stood up for Australian families against this government's attacks on families. We will continue to do so. Just bear witness today to the number of people who have stood up to speak about this bill. Our list is endless. On the other side—crickets! Nobody is there to defend their attacks on families. If only just one of them could stand up here today and defend why they think it is okay to consistently attack families, to consistently attack those most vulnerable in our society, to consistently attack those who are so desperate, as I once was, that they have to go into a Centrelink office and take social welfare. We did not want to. We do not want to, but we have to. We rely on our government. It is part of the social cohesion and the trust that everyday Australians have in their government, knowing that their government looks after them, knowing that their government cares for them, knowing that they can trust that when they are in a dire situation, when they are desperate, when they find themselves in a situation that they have absolutely no control over, that their government, the people who they have elected to stand here in this very chamber, will fight for them.
I will not stop fighting for those most vulnerable in our community, because I know what it is like from my own experience. I know what it is like from the people who walk into my electorate office every day and tell me how hard it is for them. I will not give up on them, and I implore this government to not give up on them as well.