House debates

Thursday, 1 August 2019


Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2019-2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 2019-2020, Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 1) 2019-2020; Second Reading

11:59 am

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2019-2020 and associated legislation. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, 'The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable.' It is also the true measure of a government. Let's look at the coalition government's scorecard. Next month, going into their seventh year in office, how have they treated our most vulnerable Australians during their time in office?

Older Australians are some of the most vulnerable in our community. We call them the greatest generation—those who endured World War II and then the Cold War challenges that came after that. They showed courage, and they came from parents who came through World War I and the Great Depression. They are a wonderful generation. Let's look at how the coalition has looked after them. When the Labor Party declared that aged care in Australia was in a state of national crisis, the immediate response from Prime Minister Morrison was to accuse us of fearmongering. Eventually, however, when faced with scandal after scandal, Prime Minister Morrison was forced to concede that a royal commission was actually needed. But, by then, the sector was at breaking point. South Australia's Oakden aged-care facility was just one of many. It had been closed some 12 months before the announcement, after horrific evidence of elder abuse and neglect was uncovered. The Prime Minister made the announcement to hold a royal commission the day before the ABC's show Four Corners was to air a two-part investigation into treatment of the elderly. We see the master of spin before substance striking again—the great advertising person who is now our Prime Minister.

How did the aged-care sector get to this point? Well, the coalition government had been neglecting the aged care sector for six years. There were dozens of reports, reviews and inquiries about how to improve aged care, which were all left to gather dust on the shelf. The number of older Australians waiting for their approved level of home care package was growing day by day, under different ministers. It is well over 100,000 and still edging northwards. Basically, governments—Labor and Liberal—have had 60 or 70 years to get the settings right, but the coalition has got it very, very wrong. They've cut almost $2 billion from aged care. No wonder the sector hit crisis point. The royal commission has commenced hearings. Horrible stories of abuse and neglect are being heard. While we wait for the royal commission to do its job and carefully collect evidence, older Australians across the country are still left vulnerable.

There is more this government could do right now to protect older Australians. The Earle Haven aged-care facility had to close suddenly, leaving residents and their families frightened and distraught. There are many questions the government needs to answer about that closure. Did cuts to residential aged-care funding contribute to the closure of Earle Haven aged care? Does the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission have strong enough powers to protect consumers? Are current regulations for residential aged care strong enough to stop this kind of event happening again? The recommendations that will come from the royal commission will be essential for the aged-care sector going forward, but the coalition government cannot afford to sit on its hands waiting for these findings. This government has not done enough for vulnerable older Australians. It needs to act so that older Australians can feel safe from abuse and neglect and secure in the knowledge that they won't be thrown out on to the street at the will of a provider.

In Australia, human dignity is seen as a birthright. We say Jack's as good as his master, and, perhaps, even better. We pride our ourselves on not leaving anyone behind. It's part of that core Australian value of mateship. Our welfare safety net is not an option; it's who we are as a country. It helps to define us. For six years, the coalition government has done nothing to help the unemployed. Instead, it has a very good line in shaming the unemployed. 'If you have a go, you'll get a go,' is basically saying, 'If you do not have a job, that is your decision.' Or there is, 'The best form of welfare is a job.' I agree that there is much dignity in labour—in employment—but what about those areas of Australia where there aren't enough jobs for the number of unemployed people? That's not recognised by those opposite. Just yesterday, we had the minister for employment releasing figures on how many unemployed people have had their payments suspended. It was offensive. It was an attempt to label the unemployed as dole bludgers. I suggest you look at the hashtag to see what it's really like to be looking for work. I thought we were better than that as a nation. I thought even this cold-hearted coalition government was better than that.

We know Newstart needs to be increased immediately. Newstart is inadequate. It is, I would suggest, almost impossible to live on. There is no dignity in trying to get by on less than $40 a day. There is no dignity in being labelled a 'dole bludger' when we have a Prime Minister who actually goes out and says, 'No, no, all those people on Newstart actually receive significant other payments.' As it turns out, 52 per cent of them only receive $1 extra a day. So if you pool that $14 over the fortnight, you might be able to get a burger and a milkshake, if you're lucky. There is no dignity in being told those who have a go, get a go, when you're doing everything you possibly can to get a job and no-one will actually give you a go.

The government's robo-debt scheme is so seriously malfunctioning that it is time for it to be scrapped. Their machine has gone rogue, and 160,000 Australians have been hounded for debts they did not owe. The stress and hurt these claims have caused cannot be measured. On 7.30 and other television shows, we have seen a mourning mother being hounded for an alleged debt owed by her deceased disability pensioner son. We see a widowed 79-year-old hounded for $67.55 from 1998 that he never actually owed. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that 429 Australians under 35 have died after receiving a robo-debt notice.

Legitimate debts should obviously be claimed, but the robo-debt scheme using a computerised calculation that is claiming false debts. There is no human oversight of these claims, it would seem. Once a claim has been sent, the recipient bears the onus of proof to establish that they do not owe any money; the onus of proof is effectively reversed. Some of these debts are many years old, and obtaining the historical documents to prove your innocence can be painstaking and sometimes impossible. Robo-debt is inaccurate, harsh and unfair. It is a cruel attack on some of the most vulnerable in our society. It is the function of good governments to make sure that the processes they put in place are working and are appropriate and that the penalties are commensurate with the debt. Clearly, the robo-debt scheme fails that test, and it doesn't help having an incompetent minister administering it.

I have a very multicultural electorate, with many people who were born in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, about 20 of the 50 or so countries in Africa, New Zealand and all around the Pacific all living in one part of the southern suburbs of Brisbane. Moreton relies on connections with overseas places. It is good for our business, good for trade opportunities and good in so many ways. Because Moreton is such a multicultural seat—the most multicultural in Queensland—as you'd expect, many have family and friends overseas who often visit and some who end up migrating. So my electorate has a large proportion of people who are well versed in dealing with the visa processing component of the Department of Home Affairs. Let me tell you, many of them are alarmed by the Morrison government's plans to privatise our visa system. You don't hear too much about this scheme, because the government knows that Australians don't like the privatisation of public assets and functions, especially in Queensland and especially one as critical as deciding who gets to come into our country. We know if we don't get it right we've seen 30,000 people arrive on planes and claim asylum under Minister Dutton. But under Minister Dutton's plan, private providers will be given licence to run Australia's visa system as a for-profit business. This could also lead to cuts to services, increased visa fraud and data security risks. Privatising our visa processing system could mean replacing most, if not all, visa processing workers with a fully automated process.

We know how well technology has worked for Centrelink's robo-debt system, don't we? It didn't go well at all. Would we trust that same technology that brought us robo-debt—with all of those complications and wrong calls—with actually issuing visas for the people who come into Australia? As one former deputy secretary of the department said recently, 'What if the company that wins the bid to take over our visa system ends up transferring the visa-processing work overseas?' This might save some costs; labour costs obviously are a big part of such a process. But what about the risk?

I love this nation too much to risk our citizens' lives with someone outsourcing a project to the lowest possible bidder, especially if they go overseas. An Australian visa would be many times the annual salary of low-wage economy staff members. Would Australian taxpayers have to cover the additional cost to monitor and investigate anything if there is corruption? We already have hints of corruption going on in our visa process now. Imagine if it's outsourced to a for-profit company—the one with the lowset tender?

Is the Australian public happy to take on such a risk given our attitude to issues such as border control and visa integrity? Under this government over the last three years we've seen it go from 9,000 people arriving and claiming asylum at our airports, and then up to 18,000 the year before last, and then up to 27,000 most recently. Minister Dutton has lost control of our airport processing procedures already, and we're going to see them try and outsource some of this visa processing.

In things like this, I think a little bit of economic nationalism is needed, where we put Australian jobs and Australian security ahead of the cold, hard economic decisions being trotted out by those opposite. It's not as if visa privatisation has worked out that well in countries where they have outsourced the system. Let's have a look at the United Kingdom, which privatised its system a few years ago. Let's see how well it is functioning there, a very comparable country we have many connections with. We end up with—who would have thought, in a for-profit operation?—high fee charges, people being forced to travel hundreds of kilometres to be able to submit their applications, and some applicants having to pay for a premium service when the regular service was actually not available. So why is Prime Minister Morrison, a former immigration minister, hell-bent on going down this route? I think it's because the government don't believe in the provision of good services, and they would rather hand over control of one of our most vital services to the lowest bidder.

Rather than a short-sighted sell-off, we need to upgrade our visa processing systems. We also need to make sure that the visa processing is owned, managed and operated by the Australian government with Commonwealth staff, and that the staff are provided with the necessary resources for them to operate effectively. Australians don't want second-rate services, and it is too dangerous to outsource this. We want world-class services that will enrich our economy and make sure the jobs stay here.

We know this coalition government has made cuts to many vital services in this country. Deputy speaker Zimmerman, I take your mind back to that shocking Joe Hockey budget, the first line-up of cuts. What we actually see opposite is big cuts done quietly and then little, loud handouts. That's the way they operate, whether it be in environment, whether it be in local infrastructure, whether it be in education. I'm going to focus on education in the time remaining. They are not prepared to spend big money providing actual services that will make the lives of all Australians better; that would cost money that might endanger their precious surplus target.

Being an advertising man, the Prime Minister knows that when you have a dud product, you need to distract with something bright and shiny. It's a classic marketing trick. Turn on the television any day of the week and you'll see it in action—especially late at night, when you can get a set of steak knives if you buy something. Buy one and get one free and all of those sorts of things. There is nothing wrong with steak knives. They are useful, and people generally want them—I know, as a son of a butcher. That's the trick. They are a sweetener to buy a dud product. The Morrison government has turned itself into a daytime or late night Demtel classic television spruiker.

It cut funding to actual education but is giving away trinkets to schools as a sweetener. I'm referring to the grant funding for local schools. Don't get me wrong; I encourage all my schools in Moreton to apply for these grants of between $1,000 and $20,000. Some of my 50 schools will get something, but what they won't get is more funding to support them to better provide the education they want their students to have and which their students deserve. They will get some shade sails, but what about having seven teacher aides? They will get shade cloth, but what about seven teacher aides who can actually make a difference?

The same can be said for the Morrison government's Communities Environment Program. The government has no policy to address climate change—none at all—so they give trinkets of funding to community-led environmental projects. Local community and environment groups can apply for funding of between $2,500 and $20,000 for eligible projects. As I said, big cuts done quietly and little, loud handouts—that's the way they operate. Again, I will be encouraging all my local environment groups to apply for this funding, but it's not addressing the actual problem of rising emissions and the devastation that will be caused by this government's lack of action.

This is a smoke-and-mirrors government. They use every marketing trick in the book to try to look like a government, but you hardly need to scratch the surface to find the true beast: a shonky salesman trying to sell a mirage. (Time expired)


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